Hamilton teachers and unions worry about number of students exempt from masking

Hamilton educators and their unions are becoming worried about what they say is a large number of students not wearing masks in local public schools.

Local unions say 25 per cent of students in one public school aren't wearing masks

Educators and local school unions worry about the number of students opting out of masking in Hamilton classrooms. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Hamilton educators and their unions are becoming worried about what they say is a large number of students not wearing masks in local public schools.

Jeff Sorensen, president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers' Local, told CBC there are complaints coming from staff at schools, with one school apparently reporting 25 per cent of students not wearing masks.

"We're having serious problems with it," he said.

It's unclear how widespread the issue is given there are no numbers for masking exemptions throughout Hamilton schools.

Families can opt out of mandatory masking in Hamilton schools if their children have medical issues that would prevent them from using a face covering or mask or have difficulty breathing in one. But they don't need to provide any proof.

"It's alarming," Sorensen said.

He thinks not needing proof contradicts the idea of a mandatory masking policy.

Daryl Jerome, president of the local Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, echoed some of Sorensen's worries.

"The board isn't asking for any medical documentation because doctors are overwhelmed with the ask for sick notes," Jerome said.

"Our concern is we have people in the community who are COVID-deniers and anti-maskers. People are just going to send their kids and exempt them but not for medical reasons or a valid reason, it's because they don't believe they should be wearing it despite what the science says."

The unions also voiced concerns about how educators enforce masking.

Local schools have emphasized a compassion-first approach and have stressed that education will come before discipline.

Jerome says teachers don't know how they are supposed to deal with students who don't want to wear masks.

"The Board's exception form does not require proof and they are citing Human Rights grounds for this. It is still early days and we are concerned about how potential mask defiance and lack of adherence to health and safety protocols will be dealt with by school management," he noted.

Pat Daly, chair of the Catholic board, and Peter Sovran, associate director of learning services at the public board, both say they don't have any hard figures on the number of students masking yet.

Sovran said the public board will monitor masking numbers and said the exemption is similar to what is allowed outside of schools.

"It's based on children who have underlying medical, developmental, sensory or a mental health reason and would inhibit them from wearing a mask for a prolonged period of time. An exemption could be provided for a child who had difficulty removing the mask without assistance and may have difficulty breathing in a mask," he explained.

"We're going to continue to work with families to help them understand the importance of the mask and help us understand their child's particular needs if they want to indicate them ... and to see whether or not we can help their child ease in to wearing the mask. It's not an 'all or none' necessarily."

Kids don't need to wear masks while outdoors. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Sovran emphasized schools may work with families to help them have their child eventually wear masks or for part of the day.

Both boards have reduced class sizes using reserve funds and money from the Ontario government and students don't need to wear masks when outdoors. 

Sovran also says the exemption has been worked through with Hamilton Public Health.

"We've been asked to not overburden the healthcare system by asking for doctors' notes," he said.

Sovran said the masking rules may also be adjusted if they notice a problem as schools operate during the pandemic.

Daly said in most occasions, the proof for an exemption would be obvious, but if educators have doubts about a student needing an exemption, the Catholic board could ask the family to provide proof.

"But again, if a parent says their child has a certain medical condition, we would believe parents," he said.

Some students told CBC masks were difficult and painful to wear, while other said they were getting used to them. Educators also said students seem to be OK with wearing masks while in school.

Kids need time to adjust to masking

Colin Furness, an epidemiologist with the University of Toronto, told CBC students need at least a few days for a new normal to set in and allow kids to become used to wearing masks.

"Many of the kids returning to school may have never worn a mask previously, and many parents may not have been ready.  We saw this in the opening days of mandatory masks in Toronto," he said.

"This underscores the need for clear public messaging from schools and government about what's required.  Schools should ideally distribute masks over the first few days, and then perhaps set a date by which all students need to be wearing one in order to attend."

"There isn't a magic number for the proportion of students wearing masks needed for a safe environment, beyond 'most.' "

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