Individual school boards appear to be discouraged from seeking an extension to the lifting of the mask mandate, which is set to end in less than two weeks.
Trustees from the Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board have formally requested that the mandate’s scheduled lifting in schools on March 21 be postponed indefinitely.
However, Lecce stated in a statement released on Friday that school boards “are expected” to follow the Ford government’s plan, which he claims uses “one of the most cautious timeframes” among Canadian provinces.
“School boards in this province are expected to implement this cautious plan, coupled with the ongoing improvement of air ventilation within Ontario classrooms,” he said.
Ministry officials have previously said that local medical officers of health could theoretically issue a Section 22 order to require masks in schools without receiving approval from the Ford government.
However, Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa told CP24 on Thursday that the decision on masks in schools is ultimately “in the purview of the province.”
Lecce also told reporters on Thursday that “if a public health unit wants to consider an elevated measure they can consult with the chief medical officer of health.”
Against this backdrop the Toronto District School Board formally notified parents about a series of changes to its COVID-19 policies and procedures on Friday, including the plan to tentatively lift the mask mandate on March 21 unless Toronto Public Health and Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health agree to a request that they made during a meeting Thursday night for “additional time.”
The TDSB also said that trustees also voted to rescind the mandatory vaccination policy for employee as of March 14, in line with direction from the Ontario government.
That will pave the way for the return of the 100 permanent staff and 643 occasional staff that were placed on leave in November after failing to comply with the terms of the policy.
Meanwhile, the board says that “cohorting and distancing” will no longer be required in its schools going forward as part of a broader return to normal. Restrictions on assemblies and other events are also being lifted.
“We’ll work with our schools obviously to answer any questions they may have but as of right now come March 21 the vast majority of measures will be lifted, though I should point out that we are still strongly encouraging people to wear masks regardless,” TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird told CP24 on Friday.
A number of groups have criticized the Ontario government’s move to lift the mask mandate in schools as of March 21, including the Ontario Principals’ Council and the Children’s Health Coalition.
But Premier Doug Ford has so far stood behind the decision, arguing that “there has to be a point after two years of going through this where people have a choice.”
In its memo, the TDSB said that while masks will no longer be required after March 21 they will continue to be “strongly encouraged” and Personal Protective Equipment will still be provided to staff.
Meanwhile, the board said that positive case notification letters that have been issued to parents when there are cases in their child’s classroom will continue until the end of March but will then be “reassessed.”
The Ford government previously lifted the requirement for boards to publicly report positive cases in January, though many boards have continued to notify parents when there is a confirmed case in their child’s classroom.
“For the past two years, the TDSB has prioritized the health and safety of students, staff and school communities. As we move to a more sustainable, long-term approach to managing COVID-19, you are encouraged to continue with the layers of protection that make you feel comfortable,” the memo states.
While the TDSB has said that it will follow the province’s guidance on masks unless permitted more time, Bird said that trustees do feel that the March 21 timeline is “a little too soon,”
He said that for that reason the board is telling parents to plan for masks being made optional in two weeks’ time while embarking on a “parallel process” to seek approval for a delay.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board has also indicated that it has formally asked for a delay to the lifting of the mask mandate.
“We have heard the concerns from our parents and our students and our staff that they would just like a little bit more time, perhaps two more weeks just after returning from March Break. They feel that it is maybe a little bit too soon and they would like just to have that time extended,” TCDSB spokesperson Angela Kennedy told CP24 on Friday.
On Thursday Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board trustees voted to keep masks in place for students and staff until April 15.
The University of Waterloo has also said that it will maintain its mask mandate through the end of the winter term.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist, told CP24 earlier on Friday that he did not believe masks should be necessary in schools “indefinitely.” He did say, though, that he would have preferred the province to wait until after the March Break to lift the mandate.
“Right now, I think it’s a little too soon.” I’d leave them on for a few weeks longer. “I’d keep an eye on things before and after March Break,” he stated. “Listen, if we’re still on a downward trajectory (then), if things are going well, let’s take them off.”