The Ontario government has doubled down on lifting mask mandates in schools and rejected overtures by publicly funded school boards that want to maintain face coverings for a while longer — a practice some private schools intend to continue.
Some school boards, including Toronto’s public and Catholic boards, asked for more time in lifting COVID-19 restrictions, rather than having to follow the province in ending mandatory masking in schools and most public spaces beginning Monday.
On Thursday, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health sent a letter to those boards, confirming they are expected to make masks optional when students and staff return after March break.
“With the peak of Omicron behind us, Ontario has been able to cautiously and gradually move through its reopening milestones,” wrote Dr. Kieran Moore to the Toronto District School Board. “With high vaccination coverage and the availability of antiviral treatments, Ontario now has both the prevention and response tools necessary to manage the impact of COVID-19.”
A spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said “Ontario remains one of the last provinces in Canada to lift masking requirements in schools with a cautious timeline” and has provided 122,000 HEPA units and millions of rapid tests to schools.
“As we learn to live with and manage COVID-19, we are supporting children and students as they get back to more normal classrooms, which is critical for their mental health following two disruptive years,” Grace Lee said via email.
The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board told families Thursday that it will require masks to April 1, but provincial officials confirmed it has no authority to enforce that. The local public health unit has not issued a special order that could allow the face coverings despite the provincial direction.
Meanwhile, some private schools plan to maintain masking rules after their March break, which is two weeks long. In Ontario, private schools run like businesses or non-profit organizations, and while they are free to set their own rules, they have been encouraged by the province to follow Moore’s advice.
Schools such as Bishop Strachan and Branksome Hall indicate masks will be optional, while others such as St. Michael’s College, De La Salle College and Crestwood will keep masking for a while longer.
The Star contacted various private schools for comment, but because of March Break staff could not be reached.
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In a letter last week to parents, the principal of St. Michael’s said that after the break, “masks will still be required while in the building … Although we are all tired of living with COVID-19, the virus has not disappeared.”
Tim White, director of the Conference of Independent Schools Athletic Association, said his organization and the Conference of Independent Schools of Ontario — representing 47 private schools — will meet in the next 10 days to look at the provincial guidance and decide on next steps for when private schools resume March 28. They plan to make recommendations, but each private school can make its own mask policies.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said masking is another example where private schools don’t have to follow the same rules as public ones.
She said boards have been debating the masking issue, torn between what they would like to do and what they’re legally required to do. “Nobody wants to extend the mask mandate for months. For the most part, people are just saying for two weeks, until we know what happens after March break. But in the end, most boards are just saying they’re going to follow the rules.”
She anticipates school boards will strongly recommend that students and staff continue to wear masks and encourage everyone to respect people’s choices.
Dawn Danko, chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, said it would like the extra two weeks to transition to no masks, especially for higher-risk students who may need time to set up home learning should they now feel unsafe in a classroom. She said the board’s director has been in touch with the ministry and has not received a formal response from the minister so “we are going ahead” with requiring masking until April 1.
Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said “the province is not really recognizing the concern that many people have about the transmission of COVID-19 within schools.”
“Why would we increase the risk of more outbreaks, and potential shutdowns?” she asked, especially in younger age groups with low vaccination rates.
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
Bailey Martens is a Vancouver-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Bailey via email: email@example.com
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