The Ontario government has turned down a request from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) to maintain the masking rule in classrooms when students return to school from March break next week.
On March 11, TDSB chair Alexander Brown wrote to Ontario chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore to ask for more time to adjust health measures in schools, after he announced that Ontario will lift the mask mandate in most public settings including schools on March 21.
“To remove such measures like masking, distancing, cohorting, and daily screening protections at the same time would go against our multiple layer approach to protecting our school communities from the spread of COVID-19,” Brown wrote in a letter, which was also addressed Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa.
Brown cited the board’s duty to “serve students and staff that are immune-compromised, medically-fragile and at higher risk of having complications from COVID-19” while pointing out that vaccination rates are lower among students aged 5-11, and students under 5 are ineligible for vaccination.
In response, Moore said “the peak of Omicron” has passed with the result that many public health measures can be lifted.
“As we continue on this path, we are able to take a more balanced and longer-term approach to the province’s pandemic response, including in Ontario schools, by removing many of the emergency measures that have been in place over the past two years,” he wrote in a March 17 letter.
He noted that many health measures remain in place to protect students and staff who are required to continue self-screening each day before attending school or child care, and that those who are ill are asked to stay home. The government will also continue to upgrade screening tools and ventilation in schools as well as providing rapid antigen tests and free personal protective equipment to staff and students.
In a news release issued Thursday, the TDSB encouraged students and staff to “respect the individual choices” to keep wearing masks, despite it no longer being mandated.
At least one school board said it plans to maintain a mask rule for students and staff for a “two-week transition period” until April 1.
The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) said in a news release on Thursday that the two-week period aims to mitigate spread of COVID-19 after the March break and allow students who do not want to return to a school without public health restrictions to shift to remote learning.
“We understand that some families may be feeling anxious ahead of Monday’s return to school and recognize the divisive opinions surrounding the mask requirements,” the HWDSB said.
Students not wearing a mask will be reminded of the HWDSB’s direction, but will be allowed an exemption. All student mask exemptions previously submitted will be honoured, while parents who wish to apply for an exemption for their kids need to complete a new form before March 21.