Hamilton school board intent to ‘continue mask mandate,’ despite Ford and Lecce’s direction


Published March 11, 2022 at 8:26 pm

Dawn Danko is the chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth School District Board (HWDSB). (City of Hamilton photo.)

The largest school board in Hamilton is sticking with their choice to keep masks on in classrooms, contrary to the province’s direction.

As students and staff dispersed for March Break on Friday, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) posted a letter to families with a reminder that trustees have approved extendeding a mask mandate. Trustees voted on Thursday to maintain a mask mandate until April 15. That is four weeks longer than ordered by the province, which has said masks will be optional as of March 21, the first day back at school.

The vote was taken on a day when 71.1 per cent of elementary and secondary schools across the HWDSB reported that at least one-10th of their staff and students were absent. Across all four boards, 58.2 per cent of schools reported a 10% absence rate in a city that hit particularly hard by the Omicron-fuelled fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Children’s Health Coalition, a Toronto-based advocacy group, has called for keeping mask rules for at least two weeks past March Break to help best assess the effects of a broader reopening of Ontario. But provincial Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore announced the easing of most COVID-19 protections in the classroom on Wednesday. Following the Hamilton board’s vote, and a similar expression of interest from both major Toronto school boards, Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce both said Friday that they expect school boards to fall in line.

The Hamilton school board maintained they are “active contact” with the Ministry of Education about their aim to keep protections in place.

“The Board of Trustees approved to continue the Board’s mask mandate for students and staff until April 15 to continue their commitment to a responsible, gradual response to lifting COVID measures,” states the letter, which is signed by HWDSB Chair Dawn Danko and interim Director of Education John Bryant. “As this motion goes beyond the provincial guidelines, the Chair of the Board (Danko) is in active contact with the Ministry of Education to gain clarity on next steps. We will provide families and staff further communication and clarity on mask requirements as soon as possible, and prior to March 21.”

The message acknowledged that other COVID-19 protections such as cohorting, distancing, immunization disclosure and confirmation of screening will be lifted on March 21. The HWDSB said that its families “are strongly encouraged to continue daily screening and to (have children) stay home when sick.”

Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce both said Friday that they expect school boards to follow Moore’s direction.

The Ontario government has been easing and revising COVID-19 protections over the last several weeks. The changes come while the Ford-led Ontario PC Party is getting ready for a re-election campaign, with the vote on June 2.

One such change has been an end to case reporting of COVID-19 cases in schools, which now only have to report that at-large absence rate — students and staff combined — every afternoon. On Thursday, when HWDSB took the vote, more than 70 per cent of the schools across the board reported an absence rate of at least 10 per cent. There were also 12 schools out of the 90 included in that sample that reported at least a 15 per cent absence rate, with Cathy Wever Elementary School reporting a city-high 21.2 per cent.

Well over half of the schools across the four public boards had a 10 per cent absence rate, and about one in every eight reported 15% or higher. (Private schools do not have to report absence data, and inTheHammer has not included adult education and alternative education centres.)

Board Total Over 10% Over 15% Highest
Hamilton public (HWDSB) 90 64 12 21.2
Hamiton Catholic (HWCDSB) 49 17 3 19.7
CS Viamonde (Fr. Public) 3 3 2 17.9
CSC MonAvenir (Fr. Catholic) 4 1 1 18.1
TOTAL 146 85 18 21.2

Children aged five to 11 just became eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in mid-November. In Hamilton, close to one-third of children in that age group have had two doses, and just over half have had at least one. (Officially, the numbers are 32.88 and 52.52 per cent.) But that tally is city-wide; there are nine elementary schools in HWDSB where the two-dose uptake was under 20 per cent at the start of March.

In the ages 12-17 group, 10.4 per cent have gone for a third dose. The second-dose uptake and first-dose uptake (82.1% and 85.6%) is within two percentage points of the general population.

Ontario universities, which have vaccination uptake rates well above 90 per cent, have said they are keeping masking and vax requirements until the end of their spring terms. Post-secondary institutions do not fall under the purview of the Ministry of Education.

Meantime, Danko and Bryant said they would give families a further update before the end of March Break on March 20. They also offered a link to the board’s mental health supports.

“We ask our families to be kind, stay vigilant, and respect the choices people make for their comfort and personal safety,” the letter concludes. “Please use your best judgment when determining your own risks and protect your community by self-screening and staying home when sick.”

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