The Toronto District School Board is moving ahead with lifting the masking mandate at its schools next week after the province declined its request for additional time to remove COVID-19 measures.

Alexander Brown, the chair of the TDSB, wrote a letter to Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce and Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa last week to ask that the scheduled lifting of masking in schools on March 21 be put on hold for an indeterminate period of time.

“To remove such measures like masking, distancing, cohorting and daily screening protections at the same time would go against our multiple layer approach to protecting our school communities from the spread of COVID-19,” Brown wrote.

In a post on its website on Thursday, the TDSB said the province “reiterated their previous direction” in response to the board’s letter.

Meanwhile, in her response to the TDSB letter, which CP24 obtained, de Villa repeated that policies related to masks in schools are “within the provincial government’s purview.”

She added that due to the most recent update to the Reopening Ontario Act, “local medical officers of health are precluded from issuing Letters of Instruction to implement local measures, including the requirement that masks be worn in schools or other locations.”

Speaking with CP24 Thursday evening, Brown confirmed that the TDSB will follow and implement the changes announced by the province, lifting COVID-19 safety measures, including masking, as of March 21.

While the board already notified parents about the changes before March Break, Brown said the board was hoping to get a different response from the province.

“We were looking for a little bit of an extension in the timeline to allow for… the removal of masking to be more gradual. Anywhere up to two weeks even would have been a good compromise, especially in the city of Toronto, where we’ re going to see people still wearing masks on the Toronto Transit Commission,” Brown said.

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“It doesn’t make a lot of sense that we wouldn’t follow along and at least give parents a sense of a little more sense of security and safety as we move out of the pandemic.”

Brown said the additional time the TDSB was asking was to ensure that COVID-19 would not spread in classrooms, given that some students and staff may have traveled outside the country during March Break.

“I think that it’s okay if people are anxious. I think it’s okay if people are a little excited about this way. It’s going to be emotional, and it’s going to be accepted or not accepted by people in very different ways,” he said .

Brown noted that the TDSB will still strongly encourage wearing masks in its schools, with masks continuing to be available for students and staff upon request.

“If people choose not to wear them, we have to ensure that the environment is inclusive and safe and respectful of everyone’s choice,” he said.

With the end of cohorting and physical distancing requirements, the TDSB said students will now be able to sit, work and play together.

“As schools move towards these more normal, pre-pandemic conditions, some activities such as extracurriculars and events, require a more thoughtful, phased-in approach in schools, as well as significant staff support. Please be patient as schools work to implement these changes in their local community,” the board said.

Last week, Premier Doug Ford discouraged school boards from seeking extensions to the lifting of the mask mandate, saying that school trustees “aren’t medical experts” and should simply follow the advice of Dr. Moore.

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Despite having no power to mandate masking, officials with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board said in a letter to families Thursday students and staff will be required to wear masks indoors at schools and buses until April 1.

“The two-week extension of the mask requirement will help us mitigate any increased risk of COVID spread following March Break, support students needing to request a move to remote learning and support the well-being of all students and staff through these changes,” officials said.

Ministry officials have previously said that local medical officers of health could theoretically issue a Section 22 order to require masks in schools without receiving approval from the Ford government. Hamilton’s medical officer of health has not issued an order to extend the mask mandate in city schools.

Earlier Thursday, the Ontario Science Table released its latest COVID-19 modelling, warning that hospital admissions could increase with the lifting of more restrictions, including the mask mandate.

Dr. Peter Jüni, the table’s scientific director, told CP24 that the public should take away a sense of measured caution from this latest projection.

“We don’t pretend the pandemic is over overnight and drop all of the masks like t-shirts on the beach, but just keep transitioning into more liberty over time. (We) slowly increase number of contacts, slowly stop using masks in various situations,” he said.

– with files from Chris Fox and Chris Herhalt

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