Roughly 1 in 10 public school students in Hamilton aren't wearing masks in class

About 1 in 10 students in Hamilton public schools aren't wearing masks according to the Hamilton Wentworth-District School Board.

'If this was happening in a nightclub, Doug Ford would be screaming,' union president says

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

About 1 in 10 students in Hamilton public schools aren't wearing masks according to the Hamilton Wentworth-District School Board.

HWDSB spokesperson Shawn McKillop said that roughly 3,800 students are exempt from wearing masks or face coverings. With some 39,848 students in the public board registered for in-person learning, that means just under 10 per cent of students aren't wearing masks or face coverings.

The Catholic school board said it didn't have numbers on mask exemptions yet.

Mask wearing has been a contentious issue for the unions and the school board. The number of exemptions also comes as local schools are starting to see their first cases of COVID-19.

The exemption is for children with medical issues that would prevent them from using a face covering or mask or have difficulty breathing in one.

The unions have complained about how families don't need to provide medical documentation to opt out of mask wearing.

"It turns out mandatory masking isn't really mandatory," Jeff Sorensen, president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers' Local union, said Tuesday morning.

"If this was happening in a nightclub, Doug Ford would be screaming. If this was at a work site, employees would be upset, but because it's a school, for some reason teachers and students are subject to 'exemptions' and we get whatever works to keep schools open."

Daryl Jerome, president of the local Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, previously told CBC he worried some of the exemptions could come from people who don't have health issues and instead believe COVID-19 is not worth worrying about.

Peter Sovran, associate director of learning services at Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, is seen in Toronto on August 11, 2020. He said public health worked with HWDSB on its masking policy. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

HWDSB said it was directed by public health to not overwhelm local doctors with requests for notes. It has also emphasized compassion over discipline for those struggling to wear masks.

"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," Peter Sovran, HWDSB associate director of learning services, previously told CBC.

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

He also said public health worked with them on the policy and added that masking rules may also be adjusted if they notice a problem as schools operate during the pandemic.

INTERACTIVE | Use this map to find COVID-19 cases in local schools

The board has reduced class sizes and allows kids to take their masks off while outside. It is also trying to ensure those who can't wear masks aren't stigmatized.

Sorensen said the easiest way to avoid stigmatization is to ensure kids are able to prove why they need the exemption.

"Wear masks unless you have a documented reason not to wear a mask and have the board and staff work very hard to avoid any sort of issues around bullying or anything that might come up because of a students' inability to wear masks," he explained.

"Some of us can wear masks and some of us can't and I think we have a duty and obligation to wear masks if we can." 

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