School board in Hamilton votes to keep mask requirement, in defiance of Ontario government


Published March 10, 2022 at 7:01 pm

Most students and staff in the public school board in Hamilton will have to keep masking in the classrooms after March Break, after trustees voted to ‘stare down’ Stephen Lecce and Dr. Kieran Moore.

In a near-uninamous vote at a special meeting on Thursday afternoon (March 10), trustees of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWSDB) approved a three-part motion that will attempt to keep masking in place until April 15. The motion was moved by wards 11-12 trustee Alex Johnstone. It applies to staff and students in grades 4 to 12. It also calls for HWDSB to write a letter that explains their decision to the Ontario Ministry of Education (MOE) and Lecce, who is the education minister in Premier Doug Ford’s Ontario PC Party government. Under the motion, the board will also ask Hamilton Public Health Services to appear at future meeting to explain how it is monitoring COVID-19 data in the city, and provide support for extended mask mandate in local schools.

Trustees also voted against rescinding a mask mandate that applies to kindergartners and grades 1, 2 and 3 students, even though this would appear to violate the Ontario Education Act.

Prior to the vote on Johnstone’s motion, Ward 13 Trustee Paul Tut praised the board for “staring down the Ministry.”

As of March 21, the first day back following the March Break, individuals will no longer be required to wear masks in schools, child-care centres or most other public settings. Other pandemic measures such as class cohorting and on-site symptom screening will end in Ontario schools on that date. Moore, who is Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, announced the latest changes on Wednesday.

All public schools in Ontario report at-large absence rates — staff and students combined — to the province each afternoon. On Wednesday, when Moore announced the latest series of changes, 43 out 95 HWDSB schools had an absence rate of at least 12 per cent. A downtown elementary school, Dr. J. Edgar Davey, which has recently had absence rates near 20 per cent, did not report.

Estimates made Feb. 28 showed that there are 15 HWDSB schools where fewer than 25 per cent of the children are fully vaccinated, with two doses.

Several speakers at the HWDSB meeting expressed concern that March Break was not properly factored into the decision. There has been increased tranmission at other points of the COVID-19 pandemic when students are returning from time off where they have been visiting family and friends. Ontario delayed the resumption in-person learning for two weeks after the December holiday break, and the third wave in April 2021 came right after the Easter long weekend.

Student trustee Deema Abdel Hafeez said the change has many of her peers wondering whether they will be able to switch to online learning on March 21. It is not clear whether they can.

“This is just an added stress,” Abdel Hafeez observed.

The vote came hours after Lecce defended the masks-off plan at the Ontario legislature.

I would submit, based on what we know today, we’re actually one of the most cautious provinces,” the minister said.

Lecce added that the province is following “clear advice” from Moore, and reemphasized that around 49,000 HEPA filters are being delivered to Ontario schools. However, that total works out to an average of 10 for each of the 4,844 public schools across the province.

Dr. Irfan Dhalla, a Toronto internist, commented on Twitter that there was a juxtaposition in masking policy between schools and post-secondary institutions. Many of the latter are continuing with masking.

“Very interesting to see Ontario universities with vaccination rates (of more than) 90% keeping their mask mandates, while schools with vaccination rates (of less than) 30% may be forced to drop theirs,” wrote Dhalla, who is a vice-president at Unity Health Toronto.

Post-secondary institutions do not fall under the MOE. They are governed by the Ministry of College of Universities.

Vice-chair Becky Buck, who represents wards 8 and 14, was the only HWDSB trustee who voted against Johnstone’s motion to try to keep masking.

Last August, Buck was also the sole trustee who voted against trustees being subject to Ontario’s provincial disclosure policy on COVID-19 vaccinations. The vote was taken after the province created a policy for teachers and other education workers. Buck did, at that time, support HWDSB calling on the province to fully fund any extra costs associated with the policy,

— with files from The Canadian Press

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