‘Wear a mask until April 1’; Hamilton school board replies after letter from Education Minister Lecce


Published March 18, 2022 at 7:52 pm

Dawn Danko, the chair of Hamilton’s public school board, responded quickly on Friday to a letter from Education Minister Stephen Lecce saying that schools are not one of the settings required to keep a mask requirement beyond March Break.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, saying it is alignment with the views of the Children’s Health Coalition, voted twice in the last week to extend masking rules to April 1 — with an allowance for formal exemptions. That covers the first two weeks of school after the break. Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore has decreed that schools are among the public indoor settings where masks will be optional on Monday, March 21.

Lecce wrote a letter to Danko on Friday outlining the remaining public health protections against COVID-19 and said schools are “returning to more regular and routine ways of providing in-person learning.” The education minister for the Premier Doug Ford-led Ontario PC Party government added that province is “ensuring that individuals and families can make informed choices based on their own assessment of risk.”

In a three-paragraph statement, Danko said that the board is focused on supporting staff and families — and is not changing its plans. She reminded staff and students they have to wear a mask for two more weeks, unless they formally request and receive an exemption.

“HWDSB welcomes a letter received late Friday from the Minister of Education that shares additional information from the Chief Medical Officer of Health about moving through reopening milestones,” Danko wrote.

“Throughout the week, we have continued to update the Ministry about our transition plan. We appreciate the ongoing collaboration and support from the Ministry of Education and Hamilton Public Health Services.

“Supporting staff and families during this phased approach and time of transition is our priority. We are reminding staff and students to wear a mask until April 1 and to exercise their choice by completing the mask exemption process, if needed.”

Major studies from the U.S. have shown that in-school transmission of COVID-19 is about 72 per cent lower in mandatory-masking school district as opposed to ones where it is either optional or only for certain grades. Those studies were conducted when Delta was the dominant variant. Both forms of the Omicron subvariant, including the rising BA.2, are more tranmissible than Delta, but vaccination rates are now higher.

Nova Scotia is also keeping masks in schools for the next few weeks while making them optional in most public indoor settings. Premier Tim Houston, a Progressive Conservative, made that announcement on Friday.

The COVID-19 situation in any city involves a lot of data and moving parts, of course. Hamilton is facing, in the words of area hospital network CEO Rob MacIsaac, “a long and lasting COVID-19 hangover” after the Omicron-led fifth wave of the pandemic.

The HWDSB community, based on school maps and data available on Hamilton’s COVID-19 dashboard, also encompasses a relatively high proportion of racialized and/or low-income families and schoolchildren. That was illustrated by a recent choice to give both Ward 1 and Ward 2 their own trustee in the 2022 elections. The two wards have been paired during the current term.

Throughout the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine uptake in downtown and lower-city Hamilton neighbourhoods has below the citywide rates. As for the latter, only about one in eight Hamilton children in the age 12 to 17 group is triple-vaccinated (officially, 11.92 per cent).

Among children age 5 to 11, second-dose coverage is up to 34.34%. Only 52.79% have had at least one jab.

The letter from Lecce notes that the remaining provincial safety measures include continuing to provide free personal protective equipment, including masks for students and non-fit tested  N95 masks for education staff. It also states that ventilation upgrades and enhanced air quality practices will continue to be in place. 

“Given the robust prevention and response tools outlined above, along with continued  stabilization or improvement in key public health and health system indicators, we are  returning to more regular and routine ways of providing in-person learning while ensuring that  individuals and families can make informed choices based on their own assessment of risk,” he said. “There remain circumstances where mask wearing is recommended or required, and it will be very important to foster an environment that is kind, considerate and inclusive of those who  choose to continue to wear a mask.”

Both Danko and Vice-Chair Becky Buck have described the HWDSB’s plan as “compassionate.”

Sue Dunlop, the HWDSB associate director of education, said during a special board meeting on Tuesday that the board had received 57 HEPA filters from the province. However, that is spread across 90-plus schools. Dunlop said most of the HEPA filters were placed in high school cafeterias.

Lecce did not appear to explicitly state that school boards could not keep a mask requirement. The minister’s wording noted that schools are simply not among the settings that will still require masks on Monday.

“Congregate living settings with medically and socially vulnerable individuals will  continue to require masks and other preventive public health measures beyond March  21, 2022,” he wrote. “This requirement does not apply to publicly funded or private schools, with  some exceptions such as hospital school settings/authorities, or any health clinics in  schools, where mask mandates may still apply to some individuals, including staff.”

The HWDSB wrote two letters to Hamilton Public Health Services inquiring about a Section 22 order to protect a mask mandate. The public health unit has said it will not issue one, the Hamilton Spectator reported on Frday.

Initially, the school board wanted to extend mostly mandatory masking until April 15. It made that motion at a meeting on March 10, the day after Moore announced easing of minimum required COVID-19 protections. On the Monday of that week, four lower-city elementary schools in the HWDSB reported absence rates above 20 per cent. The province’s format for reporting absences does not indicate how much COVID-19 was a factor.

On Tuesday, trustees revised it two weeks during an emergency meeting. The points of emphasis were that two weeks followed the CHC’s suggestion, allowed time for students to shift to remote learning, and respect the amount of stress that has been placed on teachers and education workers since March 2020.

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