Staff at Ottawa’s largest school board are looking into whether it can make masks mandatory in classes after the province lifts its COVID-19 mask mandate later this month.
Ontario is ending its mask mandate in most places, including schools, on March 21. Ottawa-Carleton District School Board trustee Mark Fisher said board staff are working on a legal analysis of the province’s new directives, and whether the board has the authority to institute its own masking rules.
“We’re certainly evaluating our own mandate and authorities under the Education Act, but also in terms of good governance, occupational health and safety, and all the other things we need to be thinking about as a board of trustees,” he told Newstalk 580 CFRA’s Ottawa at Work with Leslie Roberts.
“We’ll have to think about whether or not we have the authority to put in place our own mask mandate, but also take into account all the other perspectives that are out there about masking in the current environment,” he said. “That assessment is being done right now.”
Another OCDSB trustee, Justine Bell, have asked for a special OCDSB board meeting to discuss maintaining mandatory masking until at least April 15.
Some public health experts say they would have preferred the mandate stay in place for a few weeks longer as Ontario relaxes other COVID-19 restrictions.
Ministry of education officials told CTV’s Colin D’Mello Thursday afternoon that school boards cannot independently decide to impose a masking policy in Ontario classrooms. They would have to ask their local public health unit for a Section 22 order under the province’s Health Protection and Promotion Act.
Ottawa Public Health said in a statement Thursday that although medical officver of health Dr. Vera Etches can issue orders under the HPPA, “there are limits to the circumstances when those powers may be exercised.”
“For example, a local Medical Officer of Health is currently not in a position to mandate masking in provincially regulated school and childcare settings.”
The Ontario Principals’ Council, which represents 5,400 principals and vice-principals across Ontario, called for the province to immediately pause the lifting of the mask mandate in schools.
“With the families of over two million students preparing to start March Break, when many will be traveling and meeting socially with others, we believe that lifting the mask mandate on March 21, 2022 will jeopardize the safety of students, staff and our school communities ,” the council said in a statement.
In a message to parents Thursday afternoon, the OCDSB outlined the changes that will take effect after March Break, including new masking rules.
“The wearing of masks is strongly encouraged, but masks will no longer be mandatory,” the note says. “We ask everyone to respect individual choices and the fact that everyone has different needs and comfort levels.”
Cohorting will also no longer be required in schools and the daily screening tool has been updated with adjustments to isolation requirements.
Fisher said schools remain higher-risk environments, especially with vaccinations lagging for younger children, and masking helps protect students and staff.
“I think it’s too soon,” he said. “I think it’s clear that the province is done with the pandemic, but I don’t think the pandemic is done with us.”
The union representing elementary school teachers also opposes the government’s decision to lift mask rules in schools on March 21. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario issued a statement calling the decision premature and saying it could cause further disruption to in-person learning.