Hamilton school board wants Section 22 order to keep mask mandate


Published March 15, 2022 at 8:24 pm

Hamilton’s largest school board has taken the next step in its fight to keep a key COVID-19 protection when children and teachers are back in class next week.

Dawn Danko, chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth public board (HWDSB), wrote a letter Tuesday calling on the city’s top doctor, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson of Hamilton Public Health Services, to issue a Section 22 order that will preserve a mask mandate in the board’s classrooms. Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore says masking will be optional in classrooms come March 21, the first day back after the break. However, HWDSB trustees have voted for masks to stay on until April 15, and a large study from from the United States would appear to bolster their argument that in-school transmission is reduced when masks are mandatory. The Children’s Health Coalition, which includes the McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, has also called for masks to remain for a little while after the March Break.

Richardson and her team are reviewing the letter, HWDSB intermim Director of Education John Bryant said.

Both Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce, whose Ontario PC Party government is less than 12 weeks away from election day, have said school boards should hew to Moore’s expertise. Many advocacy groups disagree with Moore about removing masking rules.

Danko and Bryant have also written to the Ontario Ministry of Education about their request. Danko said during an HWDSB board meeting on Tuesday that they will not receive a formal response, saying she was told by a deputy minister of education that “the direction from the province is the only direction you will receive.”

But the letter from Danko to Richardson points out a local medical officer of health, by Ontario law, can call for special public health measures.

“Though the province will no longer require masks, cohorting or distancing in schools effective March 21, 2022, Trustees maintained the motion for mask requirements for students in Kindergarten to Grade 3, and passed a motion that students in grades 4 to 12, as well as staff, be required to wear masks until April 15, 2022,” Danko writes.

“Masking is a health and safety measure that has reduced the spread of COVID-19. By maintaining the mask requirement as part of a gradual phased approach to the return to “normal,” we will better support student, family, and staff well-being through a time of critical change and address significant concerns of rising spread following increased social interactions and travel during March Break.

“Under Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act, a medical officer of health can ‘require a
person or take or to refrain from taking any action that is specified in order to the respect of a communicable disease,’ under the condition ‘that the communicable disease presents a risk to the health of persons in the health unit served by the medical officer of health.’

“COVID-19 continues to present a significant risk to the health of the HWDSB community and all residents
of the Hamilton area. As Medical Officer of Health to the City of Hamilton, we respectfully ask you to
consider the calls from the medical and science communities, and to issue a Section 22 order to
maintain mask requirements for all HWDSB students and staff beyond March 21, 2022, when the
provincial requirement ends.”

Health Minister and Deputy Premier Christine Elliott also made that point about Section 22 powers during a campaign-style announcement in Belleville, Ont., on March 7.

Danko adds that HWDSB is facing “staffing shortages” in many of its schools, as a result of increased absences. Most HWDSB schools still have at least a 10 per cent absence rate, although the at-large reporting method that the province created in mid-January does not indicate COVID-19’s influence on the totals.

The school board also wants clarity from Dr. Richardson and the public health unit about “specific outcomes” that could trigger a Section 22 order.

“By maintaining a mask mandate for three additioanl weeks, we hope to mitigate challenges related to staffing shortages due to increased absences and support a safer transition through the provincial changes for our community, including medically vulnerable students and staff.

“We would also appreciate further information on how Hamilton Public Health will monitor COVID-19
going forward, and what specific outcomes would lead to a Section 22 order requiring increased
restrictions in the future. We invite you to join us at an upcoming board meeting to learn more about
the ongoing work of Hamilton Public Health in this regard.”

Trustees were meeting on Tuesday night to further discuss the matter.

insauga's Editorial Standards and Policies advertising