Q & A: WRDSB Director of Education reflects on the end of masking requirements in schools

It’s been two days since the mask mandate was lifted in most settings in Ontario, including schools.

On Wednesday, Waterloo Region District School Board Director of Education Jeewan Chanicka sat down CTV Kitchener’s Leighanne Evans to talk about it.

Let’s start with the mask mandate being lifted. Many school boards, including the WRDSB, had asked the province to keep it in place, but that was denied. Talk about why you wanted it to remain in place. And how did you feel about the province’s decision?

The request that came from trustees was to have a delay on it [lifting the mandate] for at least two weeks, especially with students coming back from March break, keeping in mind the current variant and really a desire to keep students safe.

We have students and staff that are feeling trepidation and anxiousness and we also have students and staff whose preference is to not wear a mask.

What we’ve been hearing from our schools and our communities is that the week has started off well. There’s a lot of respect that has been shown for people’s individual preferences.

We understand that not all staff and families are going to be comfortable with these changes just yet. So we want to reiterate that the health of staff, students and families is our utmost priority and where families and staff feel more safe wearing masks, they’re encouraged to do so. That being said, we’re respecting the choice of all of our staff and students as we continue to try and follow the directions of the province.

I know you touched on it a little bit there, but what have you been noticing so far this week? Are people still choosing to wear their masks at school? Is that the majority? Or are the majority not wearing face coverings at this time?

It would be hard for me to answer from a majority-minority kind of way. We’re definitely seeing both. We’re seeing a lot of folks wearing masks and we are seeing some who aren’t. We’re being as respectful as we can and trying to build that spirit of respect.

We continue to try and make sure students and staff who need additional support, especially for example those that might be immunocompromised, we’re doing our best to ensure they are supported.

It’s been two years of this, and people are going through all kinds of emotions and a sense of what should or shouldn’t happen. I really see us, in our role, as not being about a “us versus them,” but all of us together, how do we work together and the best way to look after one another.

You bring up the topic of respect there, can you talk a little bit about how teachers and educators are encouraging students to be kind to one another about their own personal choices when it comes to wearing a mask or not?

That’s ongoing work for us, not just about masking, but respect in general. Our administrators, educators and all of our school-based staff are doing our best to ensure that classrooms are places where choice is honored and respected.

We continue to strive for an environment where out students feel safe, they feel respected and heard and that their choices are understood and respected.

[It’s] just really having those conversations, recognizing that we’re coming out of the pandemic and there’s a lot of trauma and anxiety. We’re trying to be as kind and as patient [as possible] and work through things to help people understand each other’s views and perspectives and not get into conversations of right and wrong and this group versus that group. Because like I said, for us in Waterloo Region, we are a community and we’re a community that’s very diverse with different opinions and in this case, different choices. We have to be able to respect that we’re going to come at it differently.

Finally switching gears here a little bit, it was decided at Monday night’s board meeting that Sir John A Macdonald Secondary School would be renamed Laurel Heights Secondary School. Can you talk about what the next steps are in that process and do we know when the new name will become official?

We’re super excited Laurel Heights Secondary School is the name. The process began last June after the board decided it shouldn’t be named after Sir John A Macdonald because of his role in founding the residential school system and as a part of our work toward truth and reconciliation.

The name recommendations were open to the public in January and we received more than 120 suggestions.

The trustees approved the new name at the committee of the whole meeting on Monday. It still needs formal approval which is expected to happen at a WRDSB meeting in the next week. So we’re still working on the next steps, but as soon as we finalize them, we will be sharing it with the community.

We’re happy to be furthering the work or truth and reconciliation and to make sure that our schools allow all of the students we serve to feel welcome, reflected and included.

Responses have been edited for clarity and length

Leave a Comment