Several trustees from different school boards will push for masking to be reinstated — a move that comes as the province’s public health agency and the organization representing public boards call for a return of face coverings to curb the spread of COVID.
Trustees from Halton, Hamilton and Ottawa say they will introduce motions to bring back masking rules in their schools, in part because of a recent document published by Public Health Ontario showing cases, per cent positivity and hospitalizations have risen since the province’s lifting of mask mandates in most indoor settings March 21.
“Optimizing layers of prevention in K-12 schools, including temporary re-implementation of masking requirements indoors and improved air quality can reduce the risk of in-school transmission and related disruption for students, families and educational settings,” according to the brief released Friday by the PHO, which is an arm’s-length agency.
At a news conference Monday, the province’s top doctor said he supports mask-wearing during this sixth wave, but doesn’t think mandates are necessary in schools.
“We’ve not seen any significant threat to the health of children,” said the chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, noting that of Ontario’s 2.75 million children, two are in intensive care and on average, 30 to 60 children are admitted to hospital over the course of a week. He noted that children should “absolutely” be screened for symptoms before going to school, make use of rapid tests available at schools, and get vaccinated or boosted.
During question period in the legislature Monday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce noted that seven million rapid tests are sent to schools each month, an additional 40,000 HEPA filter units are being distributed, free PPE is provided and there are more than 200 school-based vaccination clinics throughout Ontario.
In a media statement, Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said “We are strongly urging all students and staff to wear a face covering indoors when at school.”
“We continue to look to public health officers for direction on this important issue, and relay to them our very strong concerns about the health and safety of our students and staff,” said Abraham of OPSBA, which represents English public boards.
“Given the dramatic increase in cases in communities across Ontario, we understand the concerns being raised by our school communities, and that is why many of our member boards are currently assessing what actions they can take to best ensure the safety of our staff, students, and school communities, including supporting the reinstatement of mandatory masking.”
Over the weekend, Trustee Andrea Grebenc of the Halton District School Board, Trustee Alex Johnstone of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, and Trustee Mark Fisher of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board said on Twitter that they planned to bring forward motions to reinstate masking rules. So far, no trustee at Toronto’s Catholic or public school board has indicated the same.
At the Toronto District School Board, Trustee Rachel Chernos Lin hasn’t heard of a similar motion coming forward, noting that without support from local health officials or the province “we would not be able to enforce a mandate.”
“And we worry that enforcement would then fall onto principals and teachers and other school staff who are already significantly overburdened, and they’d be faced with resistance from some,” said Chernos Lin.
TDSB Trustee Robin Pilkey said, “I have concerns that even if a motion of this nature is brought forward and passed, it would not be enforceable, both practically for our administrators and legally, as this would exceed the ministry’s instructions,” she said. “In my opinion for this to be workable, it has to come from the provincial government.”
At the Toronto Catholic District School Board, Trustee Maria Rizzo said she might consider introducing such a motion, but doesn’t want to raise false expectations in parents.
Although the province has since January published data on school closures, along with student and staff absentee rates at Ontario’s 4,844 schools, it’s unclear how widespread COVID is. In part, that’s because absence data includes all reasons, such as medical appointments, religious holidays and family emergencies.
Still, figures show a steady increase over the past week in schools reporting absence rates of 30 per cent or above — that’s the threshold that prompts principals to contact their public health units. A joint letter is then sent to parents, reminding them of the importance of vaccination, daily COVID screening and mask wearing.
On Monday April 4, 78 schools had absence rates of 30 per cent and above. Throughout that week, figures rose and by Friday 151 schools hit that threshold. By comparison on Feb. 18, a record-high 601 schools reported absences at that rate. Last week in Toronto — from April 4 to 8 — the number of schools with an absence rate of 30 per cent or more also rose. On Monday, seven schools were at that threshold, and by Thursday there were 15. On Friday, 10 schools had absence rates greater than 30 per cent.
Before the winter break, local public health units could recommend cohort dismissals, and school closures, due to a COVID outbreak. But that changed in January, during the peak of the Omicron wave, when transmission was so widespread there wasn’t enough lab capacity to test everyone who was symptomatic.
Since then, schools have not had to notify affected cohorts about positive cases — although some schools boards still do this — and public health units have not had the authority to dismiss cohorts. Dismissals or closures of a school are now “contingent on operational requirements” determined by the school board or school, according to Ministry of Health guidance. In other words, schools are closed when there isn’t enough staff to run them.
Provincewide data for school closures since the start of this calendar year show that on Jan. 21, 16 schools were closed — the highest so far. Since then, school closures have mostly been in the single digits, but 13 were closed on Feb. 3. Throughout much of March, no schools were closed. In April, there have been three days with one school closed, but on Friday four schools were closed. The data does not say where the school closure occurred. Neither Toronto’s Catholic nor public school board has closed a school since January.
By comparison, school closures throughout the province in December were mostly in the double digits and Dec. 17 — the last day of school before the winter break — saw a record high with 72 closed.
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