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New masking rule at Ottawa-Carleton schools takes effect immediately, board says


Ottawa-Carleton appears to be the only school board in the province to re-introduce mandatory masking.

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Students, staff and visitors at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board will have to mask up when they return to school Thursday morning.

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The mandatory masking rule the board approved to curb the spread of COVID-19 takes effect immediately, board director Camille Williams-Taylor said in a letter to parents Wednesday evening.

Ottawa is facing a surge of infections, with rising absenteeism and class closures at schools due to staff shortages.

Ottawa-Carleton appears to be the only school board in the province to re-introduce mandatory masking after the province ended it in most indoor public spaces on March 21.

Masks can be removed to eat or during high intensity physical activity, said the letter to parents at the board.

Masks won’t be required on buses, which are operated by a transportation authority that serves both the Ottawa-Carleton and Ottawa Catholic school boards.

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The letter said students will not be suspended or expelled if they refuse to wear a mask.

Their parents may be called, though, to either “assist in helping the student fulfill the masking requirement, or to apply for an exemption to the masking requirement.

“Where a student without an exemption refuses to comply with the masking requirements, staff are asked to show understanding, promote awareness and use trauma-informed practices in order to make efforts to understand the reason for the lack of compliance and see if a resolution can be reached.”

During the school board debate Tuesday on mandatory masking, several trustees said the rule could not be enforced.

Trustee Donna Blackburn said several teachers have told her they won’t wear a mask no matter what the school board directs.

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The presidents of the unions representing teachers in the board said in interviews Wednesday that they support requiring masks again and don’t anticipate it will be a problem to get either staff or students to wear them.

“It keeps coming up: How do we enforce this? How did we enforce it before?” said Susan Gardner, president of the union representing elementary teachers.

“I don’t really see why there would be much difference (than before March 21), to be honest.”

Susan Gardner, president of the union representing elementary teachers, said she ‘strongly’ believes teachers will follow the policy.
Susan Gardner, president of the union representing elementary teachers, said she ‘strongly’ believes teachers will follow the policy. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

Since 2020, teachers with a medical note exempting them from wearing a mask have been given the option to work in virtual schools, she said.

“I strongly believe teachers will follow the policy. Educators are rule followers. We need to keep people safe, and this is the right thing to do to keep people safe.”

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The president of the union representing high school teachers and other education staff, Stephanie Kirkey, said a temporary mask mandate is a reasonable measure that will slow the spread of the virus in schools and help protect in-person learning.

Gardner and Kirkey said they were not aware of any staff without exemptions who have refused to wear masks in the past and been disciplined.

Students can continue to get a mask exemption for medical reasons, and principals can approve exemptions based on human rights code grounds including mental health and religious beliefs, the letter said.

Excerpt from the letter sent to parents at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board on masking requirements.
Excerpt from the letter sent to parents at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board on masking requirements.

The Ottawa Catholic School Board, meanwhile, said it has no plans to impose its own masking rules.

The board has “no legal authority to implement mask-wearing in our schools as the province has made wearing masks optional,” chair Mark Mullan said in a statement.

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“As a board of trustees, we did not want to cause divisiveness in our community by creating a policy not enforceable in our schools and work sites. We ask that our students and staff respect each other’s differing opinions and make personal choices that align with their individual and family circumstances.”

Amir Attaran, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who has posted about the issue on social media, said it is “very, very clear” that school boards can legally require masks.

School boards might be opening themselves to legal challenges if they fail to protect vulnerable students and staff by not requiring masks when COVID-19 in the community is high, Attaran said.

Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said Monday that he strongly encourages people to wear a mask indoors, but does not recommend a return to mandatory masks in schools.

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Tuesday, Health Minister Christine Elliott said votes by school boards on masking were premature because Moore is reviewing the data to decide whether mandatory masking should be reintroduced in schools and indoor settings.

Wednesday, Ottawa Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches repeated her message that she strongly recommends people wear masks indoors. She said she currently has no plans to use her powers under the Health Protection and Promotion Act to order mandatory masking in schools or elsewhere, but she is monitoring the COVID-19 situation in the city and consulting with the province.

jmiller@postmedia.com

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