Hamilton

Hamilton public school board votes to keep masks in schools until April 15

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is going against the province's direction and keeping masks in schools until April.

Board director says HWDSB has little legal recourse if there's a court challenge

HWDSB vice-chair Becky Buck, right, says she wants to focus on the positive aspects of lifting the mask mandate. Chair Dawn Danko, left, says the board's decision could put school staff in a tough situation. (Submitted by HWDSB)

Pushing back against what some board members called a "rushed" and "irresponsible decision made by the province," the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) has voted to keep mask requirements for its schools until at least April 15.

But the decision to require masking, introduced in 2020 to require mask use, is not in compliance with the Education Act and the board will have no legal recourse to enforce it. 

HWDSB trustees voted 10-2 Thursday to keep mask mandates for its schools until at least next month. On Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford said the province will lift its mask mandate for public settings on March 21. 

Trustee Paul Tut was among those who supported the board keeping masks for longer in its schools, and he commended fellow trustees who did too.

"It's very courageous what you've shared tonight in terms of your comments and the fact that you've voted to stare down the ministry," he said. 

It will "(ensure) the safety of our students and our staff, and those most vulnerable in our system."

Vice-chair Becky Buck, meanwhile, was opposed to keeping the masking rule. 

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"We've had two years of this, and it would have been great to ease into some significant changes and the circumstances that we find ourselves in," she said. But the decision "has been made for us."

Currently, the Ministry of Education has directed school boards to remove any motions related to public health and safety requirements, and to publicly communicate that restrictions are being lifted.

"Of all the provinces to release plans to lift masking requirements in schools, Ontario has one of the most cautious timelines," the ministry said in a statement Friday. The province is investing in HEPA units for schools, better ventilation and more rapid tests, it said.

"School boards in this province are expected to implement this cautious plan, coupled with the ongoing improvement of air ventilation within Ontario classrooms."

But trustee Alex Johnstone says the move "feels rushed. While we are working toward an end-demic, we want to do so responsibly."

"My concern is that it does feel rushed. We don't have the ability to maintain the motion. At this point I kind of feel like we're being forced to carry out the government's work."

'Irresponsible' government decision, one trustee says

Trustee Maria Felix Miller echoed Johnstone's concerns, calling the government's decision "irresponsible."

"It is 100 per cent not the appropriate time for this decision," Miller said.

"We have a responsibility to manage risk in our communities and it is inappropriate that the government is not allowing us to make a local decision reflective of local situations."

Miller said that she would feel comfortable being in defiance of ministry's direction, at least until the board can connect with Hamilton Public Health Services.

Johnstone brought the masking motion to the table. It had three parts: keeping the masking requirement for staff and students until April 15, writing to the ministry with a rationale for the choice, and inviting Hamilton Public Health Services to the next board meeting.

For kindergarten students, school has always meant masks

Buck said that she can see positive aspects to the province's decision, and she wants to focus on those.

"Our kindergarten students, our senior kindergarten students who are starting Grade 1 next year, they've literally never sat in a classroom where they've been able to watch their teacher's mouth and then see and sound out words," Buck said.

Those years, she said, are a critical period of development.

"Two years in the life of a five year-old, that's a significant portion of their life," Buck said.

Interim director John Bryant said if the board doesn't rescind its mask mandate, it will have little power to legally defend the decision. It could result in a judicial review and policy grievances, he said.

School staff are dealing with a lot

"I would suggest that you would be putting the board at some risk to any kind of judicial review and the ministry always has the choice to review that decision as well as impose restrictions that they see would be warranted," he said.

Board chair Dawn Danko worried this could be putting staff members in a difficult position. "They're already dealing with a lot," she said.

"When students arrive at school, I don't believe staff will be able to take any action because as mentioned, it is going to be a human rights infringement. Students have the right to go to school."

Danko also noted that there are already exemptions for some students, and the board doesn't require medical documentation. So this decision may not "shift things significantly," she said.

"But if it does provide a more gradual ramp to removing masks as one of our safety protocols. I think that will benefit most people in our system."

'We are asking for just a month'

Danko also said the board has to communicate clearly and transparently with families, students and staff about what is "required legally." 

"While the board is requiring masks and has a motion that masks are required, the ministry does not require it," Danko said.

Many board trustees offered comments in support of the motion.

"I understand that the decision that we have just made is going against the ministry," trustee Elizabeth Wong said. 

"But we have a responsibility to be responsible for our students and staff – and we are asking for just a month."

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