Ottawa’s French public school board has added its voice to those asking the province to delay lifting mandatory masking and other measures on March 21 when students and staff return from March break.
A delay would protect students, staff and families by mitigating the increased transmission of the virus expected when people travel and gather during the March break, said the letter from Jacinthe Marcil, president of the Conseil des ecoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario , to Education Minister Stephen Lecce.
Ottawa’s largest school board was to hold an emergency meeting Monday night to discuss the same issues.
Trustee Justine Bell plans to propose a motion asking students and staff at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board to continue to wear masks until April 15.
Bell notes that a coalition of children’s hospitals and health agencies recommended keeping masking in place for two weeks after March break.
There’s also opposition to lifting mask requirements coming from teachers unions, the Ontario Principals Council and several school boards.
The Hamilton-Wentworth school board voted last week to defy the province and maintain masking until April 15, while the Toronto public and Catholic boards have asked the province to wait.
But Premier Doug Ford and Lecce show little sign of backing down, saying they are following the advice of Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore.
School boards are not medical experts and should follow Moore’s direction to drop masking, Ford said last week.
Moore has emphasized that students and staff can still wear masks if they choose. Other protections remain in place, such as improved ventilation, free rapid COVID-19 tests and a request that students and staff screen themselves for symptoms before coming to school, he said.
The province has been gradually dropping pandemic restrictions as key indicators such as the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 drop from the peak they hit in mid-January.
The decision on masking came earlier than Moore initially indicated.
In mid-February, Moore had said he would wait a couple of weeks after the reopenings on March 1 to assess the data.
“If you will bear with us, we’re going to follow the data, follow the evidence, and anticipate that we will be reviewing masking in public on the second to third week of March and make a decision for all public spaces, including schools ,” he said on Feb. 17.
Moore announced on March 9 that a decision had been made and mask mandates would be lifted on March 21 in most indoor public settings.
Lecce has emphasized that Ontario has been more cautious than most other provinces, which have already lifted mask mandates or plan to do so before Ontario.
Ford said last week that people are exhausted by the pandemic restrictions. “Those poor kids in the classrooms, too. We’ve got to move on.”
Toronto infectious diseases specialist Dr. Andrew Morris, a member of the province’s COVID-19 science advisory table, said it’s too early to drop mask mandates.
Ontario COVID-19 rates remain high, and while for most people the disease is little more than a nuisance, the highly transmissible Omicron variant will cause severe illness in others, including those who are unvaccinated, older, have waning immunity or risk factors, Morris wrote in his widely-read blog post on March 11.
“However, I think that masking indoors — where and when possible — is the cheap, safe, responsible, and neighboring thing to do for everyone.
“If I ran a school … and I wanted to ensure that my students and staff remained as healthy as possible over the next couple of months, I would insist on indoor masking as much as possible. After all, COVID hasn’t suddenly become non-communicable now that the government has removed mask mandates, and you have made it this far, haven’t you?”
University of Ottawa law Prof. Amir Attaran has jumped into the debate, posting on social media that school boards are not legally required to drop mask requirements, and accused them of simply being afraid of offending Ford. “They don’t have even 1% the courage of an average Ukrainian,” he posted.
Earlier in the pandemic, the Ottawa-Carleton board and some others imposed stricter masking rules than required by the province — for example, by requiring kindergarten students to wear a mask.
However, the president of the association representing English public school boards said it’s his understanding that school boards cannot legally impose mask requirements now.
Trustee Donna Blackburn said the board has no choice but to follow direction from the province to drop mandatory masking.
“I don’t think the board should debate an illegal motion no matter what the circumstances.
“We need to set an example. Breaking the law is never a good thing. If you don’t like the law, you work to change it. If you don’t like the government, you go to the polls and you change the government. That’s how our system works.”
Blackburn said there is little point in writing to the minister of education either. “The province is adamant. Does anybody really think he’s going to back down because of a letter?”