‘Please demonstrate leadership’: Hamilton school board urging Lecce, Richardson for mask mandates

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Published April 12, 2022 at 9:00 pm

Dawn Danko, chair of the largest school board in Hamilton, has written to Education Minister Stephen Lecce and local Medical Officer of Health Dr. Elizabeth Richardson asking for the reinstatement of masking mandates.

Danko was acting on a vote on Monday by fellow Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) trustees, who are worried about, as she put it to the Ontario PC Party education minister, the “quality of education in our schools because of staffing shortages.” The chair emphasized that HWDSB is relying on stopgap measures such as “utilizing uncertified emergency casual teachers.”

The Hamilton board, which includes over 90 schools, was the only school board in Southern Ontario that voted to extend a masking mandate for two weeks beyond the March 21 rescindment by Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore. But with COVID-19 indicators showing increasing transmisson, other boards want to bring it back. For example, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board voted on Tuesday to reinstitute masking.

Danko’s letter to Lecce calls on the education minister to “please demonstrate leadership and prevent the spread of COVID-19 by reinstating temporary indoor masking requirements for schools until we see COVID-19 cases decline.” She said staff shortages and student absences are two critical issues that the Ontario Ministry of Education can help address.

“We are seeing increases in unfilled positions that impact our schools and the quality of programming and supports for our students,” she says in the board’s letter to Lecce.

“Without an intervention of increased public health measures like mandatory indoor masking, we will continue to see this trend increase and negatively impact the quality of education in our schools because of staffing shortages.

“While we have yet to close a school, we fear that this may become an unfortunate outcome as we have already seen at other boards in the province. This is an urgent public health situation that needs immediate attention.”

According to provincial data, two schools in the province were closed on Monday.

Absence rates in Hamilton schools on Monday were lower than on the previous Friday. But one in every seven public schools had an absence rate above 20 per cent among staff and students, and Danko points out that Dr. Moore stated on Monday that case rates will remain high in Ontario till the end of May.

“We have seen increased self-reporting of COVID-19 cases by families since the beginning of April, and expect this trend to continue based on expected COVID-19 projections shared by the Chief Medical Officer of Health,” she says. “Student absences result in disruptions for student learning, school-based supports and for families.”

A study from the U.S. has also shown masking has shown can help to reduce in-school transmission that filters out into the wider community. Depending on a family’s dynamic, that can include older relatives and vaccine-ineligible siblings who are under the age of five. On the latter count, Public Health Ontario (PHO) says 74 children under age five are hospitalized with COVID-19. The hospitalization rate for children age 0-4 is three times higher than it is for adults ages 40-59.

Only a dozen schools across the city, not counting adult education centres, had absence rates of fewer than 10 per cent on April 11:

Monday, April 11 Total Over 10% Over 15% Over 20% Highest
Hamilton public (HWDSB) 94 90 67 14 29.9
Hamiton Catholic (HWCDSB) 46 39 22 7 26.8
CS Viamonde (Fr. Public) 2 2 0 0 14.1
CSC MonAvenir (Fr. Catholic) 4 3 1 0 16.9
146 134 90 21 29.9

‘Seeking your support’

A local medical officer of health can invoke Section 22 of the Ontario Health Promotion and Protection Act to issue public health protections that supplement direction from the province. In her letter to Dr. Richardson, who is recommending masking indoors, Danko points out that PHO stated last week that masking is in important layer of prevention in schools.

“Trustees have also received strong calls from several union partners and the community to reinstate masking in schools, especially given the resurgence and the presence of COVID-19 Omicron Variant Sub-lineage BA.2,” Danko says in the letter to Richardson.

“Based on the Public Health Ontario report, the status of case projections in Hamilton, and the persistent increased absences that we are experiencing, Trustees are seeking your support for the reinstatement of indoor masking requirements in schools through a recommendation or direction, as appropriate, under your authority as our Chief Medical Officer of Health.

“We will continue to communicate the important message that we are strongly recommending mask wearing in our schools. Trustees will be ready to call a Special Board meeting should there be any new direction from Hamilton Public Health Services or the Ontario government that changes public health guidance for schools.”

Strathcona Jr. Public School had the highest absence rate in the city on Monday, at 29.9.

Last week, absence rates rose over the course of the week. By Friday, more than one-third of schools in Hamilton had absence rates in the 20s.

Friday, April 8 Total Over 10% Over 15% Over 20% Highest
Hamilton public (HWDSB) 91 90 79 39 34.2
Hamiton Catholic (HWCDSB) 40 38 27 9 27.3
CS Viamonde (Fr. Public) 2 2 1 0 16.7
CSC MonAvenir (Fr. Catholic) 4 4 2 0 16.4
137 134 109 48 34.2

Schools have generally remained open during the current school year.

Overall, Ontario students have lost more days of in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic than their peers in every other jurisdiction in Canada and the United States.

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