An Ottawa parent concerned about COVID-19 safety has started a petition asking that a PA day be rescheduled so students won’t be exposed to unmasked, unvaccinated voters at polling stations held in schools.
Dozens of schools across the city will be polling stations during the provincial election on June 2.
That presents a risk to students, said Christine Guptill, an occupational therapy professor at the University of Ottawa and mom of two.
Children in elementary schools in particular are not well protected by vaccines, she said. Those under age five are not eligible for the shot and the rate of full vaccination for children aged five to 11 is not high.
Guptill’s petition is directed at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. It asks to switch the elementary school PA day from June 3 to June 2, so no students would be in schools on election day.
The board is in an unusual situation.
The province ended the requirement to wear a mask in most indoor places on March 21, but, in April, the Ottawa-Carleton board passed its own resolution requiring students, staff and visitors to wear masks in its buildings.
Guptill said she doesn’t expect the school board to enforce its mask requirement among voters who arrive at schools on election day. “That would just cause conflict. We can’t expect (principals) to enforce it. They are not police officers.
“And given the whole occupation and truckers’ convoy, how do you think that would go over?” she said, referring to the protests held in Ottawa this winter against public health measures that protect against the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing a mask.
The simplest solution is to move the board’s PA day for elementary schools to election day, she said. (Secondary schools have their PA day at the end of June.)
That’s been done at The Peel District School Board and the Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board, which have shifted their elementary PA days from June 6 to June 2.
“This decision will reduce student contact with constituents who will be accessing our elementary schools to vote,” said the Peel board in a statement. “We thank you for your understanding, as we continue to prioritize the safety and well-being of our school communities.”
The York Region District School Board had already scheduled its elementary PA day on June 2 this year because it was known in advance that would be election day, said a spokesperson.
In Ottawa, all four school boards will host polling stations.
The Ottawa-Carleton board will have polling stations at 60 schools, said spokesperson Darcy Knoll.
“Provincial legislation requires schools to permit the use of polling stations, if asked,” he said in a statement.
Will the board require voters to wear masks at schools? That’s not clear. It appears that voters will get mixed messages: one from the school board and another from Elections Ontario.
“We have reached out to Elections Ontario to clarify their plans for the day and to advise them of the mask mandate that is currently in place in our buildings,” said Knoll. “We know that the responsibility for marshalling the public during this voting process is the responsibility of Elections Ontario staff and we will support all efforts to ensure a safe and efficient elections experience for all involved.”
Schools have signs posted about the board’s requirement to wear a mask, said Knoll.
“Elections Ontario will post necessary signage in relation to the election,” he said.
Elections Canada, in a statement, said that in accordance with the provincial lifting of mask mandates in most indoor settings on March 21, it will not require poll workers or voters to wear a mask while working or voting.
Elections Ontario said the health and safety of voters and staff is a priority, and it has followed recommendations from the office of the province’s chief medical officer of health on how to safely conduct in-person voting.
“At the same time, we have a responsibility to balance preparing for an election during a pandemic with ensuring that anyone who wants to vote can do so, as is their democratic right.”
The Ottawa Catholic School Board said it plans to have polling stations in 51 schools. The PA day for that board is also June 3.
Ottawa’s French public school board said it was required to accept polling station requests.
“Schools remain open (on election day) and as always, safety measures are taken to ensure everyone’s safety,” it said in a statement. “Parents who have concerns can contact their child’s school.”