Let Hamilton school boards ‘make the call on masking,’ Green Party Leader Schreiner says to Ford


Published March 11, 2022 at 7:27 pm

Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner is backing up Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and the Hamilton public school board when it comes to requiring masking in classrooms for a few more weeks.

Schreiner issued a statement on Friday in response to the Ontario PC Party government, led by Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce, attempting to put their foot down with school boards who are trying to extend the mask mandate. The province, which says it is acting on direction from Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore, has said masks will be optional for schoolchildren, teachers and other education workers on March 21, the first day after the March Break.

The aforementioned Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) voted almost unanimously on Thursday to keep masks on through April 15. Horwath, who is all the MPP for the downtown Hamilton Centre riding, has been calling for masking to continue for several days.

On Thursday, when trustees took the vote, more than 70 per cent of HWDSB schools that reported absence data to the province said at least 10 per cent of their school population was away. (The reporting method does not convey to what degree COVID-19 was a factor). A dozen of the 90 elementary and secondary schools in HWDSB had absence rates of 15 per cent or higher.

The Children’s Health Coalition has also said the province should wait until two weeks after March Break — which would be around April 4 — to assess the effects of a broader opening across Ontario.

Schreiner called the premier’s stance inconsistent. He said Ford has “constantly shirked responsibility” for education decisions during the two-year COVID-19 pandemic, but is now taking the decision away from local school boards and public health units.

“School boards, in consultation with their Public Health Units, should be able to make the call on masking,” Scheiner stated.

“The Children’s Health Coalition, including Sick Kids, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), and Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) said that it’s too soon to remove masking.

“Public health experts are clear that masks are a crucial layer of protection against COVID-19 spread, especially when only 28% of students ages 5–11 are double vaccinated, and all children under 5 are unvaccinated.

“Throughout the pandemic, Doug Ford has constantly shirked responsibility and put the onus of decision-making on school boards — on everything from hybrid learning to testing. But all of a sudden, he’s now putting his foot down. Why? I once again ask the Premier: show us the data.

“This is why it’s important to have transparent data and rely on the advice of the Science Table. Because otherwise people and organizations lose trust in the government’s decisions.

“School boards, in consultation with public health experts, should be able to make decisions on masking.”

Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table has said they were not consulted before Moore announced a further removal of COVID-19 protections on Wednesday. The matter would seem to be of acute interest to many residents of Hamilton, based on vaccination uptake among children and the absence rates in schools across the city.

Hamilton’s COVID-19 dashboard shows that 32.88 per cent of children age 5 to 11 have had two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, but only 52.52% have started their vaccination. Children under ge 5 — meaning junior kindgergartners or the preschool-aged siblings of students — are not eligible to be vaccinated.

The absence data for March 10 shows that 64 out of 90 schools, or 71 per cent, in the Hamilton public board reported a 10 per cent absence rate on Thursday, with 12 reporting 15 per cent.

Fifty-eight per cent of public schools, including the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic board (HWCDSB) and the two French-language systems, had a 10 per cent absence rate.

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

Ford to boards: ‘They aren’t medical experts’

Regardless, the premier said Friday that the boards are to listen to Dr. Moore, and only Dr. Moore.

“Let me be very clear to the school boards: they aren’t medical experts. The chief medical officer is the expert,” Ford said during a press conference in Barrie on Friday.

“And he has done his due diligence, he’s consulted with other medical officers … He doesn’t make these decisions lightly.

“But our expectation to the school boards, to the exception of the parents that want their kids to put masks on, follow the direction of the chief medical officer. Plain and simple. That’s what we expect and hopefully they’ll do that.

“Follow the direction of the chief medical officer, plain and simple. That’s what we expect and hopefully they do that.”

Lecce issued a statement emphasizing that, “Of all the provinces to release plans to lift masking requirements in schools, Ontario has one of the most cautious timelines.

“School boards in the province are expected to implement this cautious plan, coupled with the ongoing improvement of air ventilation within Ontario classrooms.”

That was in reference to an additional 49,000 HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters that Lecce says have been sent to schools and child-care centres. However, with 4,844 public schools in the province’s four major boards, that only works out to about 10 per building. The minister also claimed that over 7 million rapid antigen tests (RATs) are being distributed in the school system each month. However, that tally would again be spread out across over at least 2.06 million students, plus teachers, principals and other education workers.

Horwath: ‘Just a couple more weeks of simple masking up’

Horwath reiterated that it seemed inexplicable that Ford and Lecce would stand in the way of progress at winding down the pandemic.

“The experts say just a couple more weeks of simple masking up will get us to the finish line — so why would Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce block that?” she said in a statement.

Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca also said the province should leave the decision-making at the local level.

“School boards are trying to protect their students but Doug Ford’s Conservatives won’t let them,” Del Duca wrote on Twitter. “Experts agree that it’s too soon to lift masking for our kids, many of whom are still unvaccinated.”

The PCs’ push to listen to Moore also seems to contradict previous statements from the government. Ministry officials have said that that local medical officers of health could theoretically issue a Section 22 order to issue COVID-19 protections in schools without provincial approval.

Peel Region MOH Dr. Lawerence Loh used a Section 22 order in April 2021, during the third wave of COVID-19, in order to close schools in Mississauga and Brampton.

When asked this past Monday if Ontario was going to life the mask requirement in schools, Health Minister and Deputy Premier Christine Elliott also acknowledged that local public health leaders can issue orders.

“There are also Section 22 orders that can still continue to be made by local public health units,” she told the Belleville Intelligencer.

Moore then made the announcement two days later, prompting the HWDSB to take the vote, with the premier, education minister, and party leaders Schreiner and Horwath responding in kind on Friday.

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