By Charlie Senack, Barrhaven Independent
Masks will again be made mandatory in OCDSB schools after the board voted in favour of a motion to bring the health and safety protocol back.
River/Gloucester-Southgate Trustee Mark Fisher brought forward the motion due to an increase in COVID-19 infections since mask mandates were lifted on March 21. Since then schools and classes have closed, and a shortage of teaching staff is making matters worse.
A similar motion was brought forward in mid-March by Somerset/Kitchissippi trustee Justine Bell, but it was shot down in a tie vote. Some trustees at the time said it wasn’t up to the board to go above and beyond provincial health guidelines.
Tonight trustees were again divided during the roughly two hour-long meeting, debating between following the science and legal authority.
Ottawa Carleton District School Board director of education Camille Williams-Taylor said while a mandate could legally be imposed, its implementation is another story.
Ottawa Public Health won’t provide specific guidance to the board, and won’t make recommendations on when such a mandate could be lifted.
Williams-Taylor said if a student showed up to class without a mask while such a mandate was in place, no disciplinary action could be pursued; The student could not be suspended or expelled. However, if a member of faculty didn’t comply with the mandate, a multi step disciplinary process would get underway, and could lead to being put on leave without pay in serious cases. That would not happen until many other steps were attempted first.
The Director of Education also felt making masks mandatory again would not help bring case counts down. The board has strongly been encouraging mask wearing, and says many students and staff have complied. She also seemed to hint that schools have not been a primary source for transmission, noting students are picking it up from travel and maskless activity outside of school hours. Some medical professionals disagree with this statement.
The school board said last week 205 COVID-19 cases were reported in OCDSB schools, and by April 12, that number was down to 113 active cases. Those are only self-reported numbers which in reality are expected to be much higher. It doesn’t take into account speculative cases, or those that aren’t called in by parents.
The board is also seeing an absentee rate at an average of 15 per cent, which is similar to pre-COVID times. It is however slightly above normal for elementary students.
Barrhaven/Knoxdale-Merivale trustee Donna Blackburn said she wouldn’t vote in favour of the motion because it couldn’t be enforced. While she too encourages mask wearing, she said many teachers have written in to say that even with such a mandate, they won’t comply. Blackburn also said she didn’t want to give people “a false sense of security.”
Many trustees agreed they wish the province didn’t put them in such a position, and that Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s top Doctor, or the Provinces Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Kieran Moore, would have stepped in and reinstated mandates.
Innes/Beacon Hill–Cyrville trustee Sandra Schwartz said she was divided on how to vote. Now in a sixth wave with waste water levels on the incline, she wanted to follow the science. But since the mandate can’t be enforced, Schwartz said she wouldn’t vote on a matter that is causing deep division in the community and resulting in a lack of public trust when it comes to medical professionals.
Rideau-Vanier/Capital trustee Lyra Evans said while the mandate may not be enforced to the fullest, it would still encourage more mask use, saying the people of Ottawa comply with rules. Evans also gave the example of when parents were allowed to smoke in the car with their kids, they did so until it was no longer legally allowed.
And with the Easter long weekend just days away, Kanata North/ Kanata South trustee Christine Boothby said she fears over what’s to come. Cases jumped after people gathered over the March break, and suspects the same will happen again.
When a similar motion was brought forward just weeks ago, Boothby hoped it would mean only a small uptick in COVID-19 infections, however that’s not been the case. While legality over what can be enforced is a grey area, she sees the motion as an opportunity to address mask mandates with “education and compassion.”
In the end eight OCDSB trustees voted in favor of masking masks mandatory again in public schools, with three trustees (Lynn Scott, Kieth Penny, and Sandra Schwartz) abstaining their votes. Barrhaven trustee Donna Blackburn was the only one to vote against the motion, along with two student trustees.
The board did not say when the mask mandate will be implemented, however it’s expected to be effective immediately. Further details are expectd to be released soon.
Catholic Schools Not Expected To Follow Suit
While the OCDSB is going ahead with enforcing masks again, the Ottawa Catholic School Board isn’t expected to do the same.
Barrhaven Catholic School Board trustee Spencer Warren says they consulted legal advice along with 72 school boards across the province, and it appeared its effectiveness would be minimal.
“The legal opinion states that school boards cannot mandate a policy with regards to masks that is different from that given to us by the provincial government,” he told the Barrhaven Independent. “The only way that we will be allowed to mandate masks again is if the provincial government changes their direction to us.”
On April 11, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kieran Moore said provincial mask mandates would not be coming back, however remaining mandates may stay in place after April.
The only other way mask mandates would come back is if Ottawa’s Chief Medical Officer stepped in.
“The other way that mask mandates can be brought back in is if the local medical officer of health mandates it though something called a section 22,” said a Warren. “To date we have not received a section 22 order from Dr Etches, although she does say that she supports the wearing of masks.”
The Ottawa Carleton District School Board reinstating mask mandates is a bold step as it goes against what the provincial government has stated. Ontario Premier Doug afore has said it’s school boards’ responsibility to follow their guidance.
Other school boards across Ontario have tried to take similar action when mandates were lifted, and were met with fury from the province.
Now the question is if other school boards across Ontario will follow suit, and try to bring back their own mask mandates again.