Petition calls on Ontario government to extend mask mandates in schools

Guelph-based family physician Dr. Andrea Chittle has launched a petition calling on the Ontario government to extend mask mandates in schools, and it has quickly racked up more than 10,000 signatures.

COVID-19 still circulating and youngest students not yet eligible for vaccine, says Dr. Andrea Chittle

Waterloo Region District School Board teacher Martha Crealock is among those who've signed a petition calling on the Ontario government to extend mask requirements in schools. (Submitted by Martha Crealock)

High school teacher Martha Crealock is still on March Break, but is already anxious about a spike in COVID-19 cases after students head back to class on Monday. 

At that point, students in Ontario public schools will no longer be required to wear masks. 

"It really concerns me that people are having March Breaks where they're interacting with many people, and maybe vacationing or breathing shared air on a plane," said Crealock, who teaches with the Waterloo Region District School Board. 

"When they come back on Monday, if people are unmasked in the classroom, I think that we will see infection rates go up." 

Dr. Andrea Chittle, a family physician based in Guelph, Ont., has launched a petition asking the province to extend mask mandates in schools. (Submitted by Dr. Andrea Chittle)

Dr. Andrea Chittle shares her concern. The Guelph-based family doctor has launched a petition asking the province to keep mask mandates in school a little while longer — and it quickly racked up more than 10,000 signatures. 

Chittle is concerned the vaccination rate among children between five and 11 is still relatively low, with just over 55 per cent of kids in that age group having had at least one dose. Meanwhile, children under five aren't yet eligible for vaccination, and COVID-19 is still circulating in the community. 

"People enrolled their elementary and secondary school students in in-person schooling this year with an understanding that they would benefit from layers of protection, as the Ministry of Education and the Ford government promised," said Chittle. 

"To remove those protections when we still have a lot of COVID circulating seems like it's leaving those families and individuals in the lurch."

WRDSB wants more time

In response to lifting mask mandates, both the Waterloo Region District School Board and the Toronto District School Board have asked the province for an extension. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board plans to keep its mask mandate for the time being — despite the risk of legal complications. 

The Children's Health Coalition, which represents children's hospitals in Ontario, has said it would have preferred to see an extension to mask mandates for at least two weeks past March Break. 

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said of the provinces that plan to lift mask requirements in schools, Ontario has one of the more conservative timelines. Lecce said the province is also improving air quality in classrooms through the addition of HEPA filters. 

"Because of these many layers of protection, the increase in investments and Ontario's overall improved situation, all schools in the province are open," he said in a statement.

'Hard to know' best time, says doctor

Dr. Joseph Lee, primary care lead for the Ontario Health KW4 region and lead physician at the Centre for Family Medicine in Kitchener, says it's 'hard to know' the right time to lift mask mandates. (Dr. Joseph Lee)

Dr. Joe Lee said it's "hard to know" the right time to lift mask mandates — though he said Chittle makes a fair point that COVID-19 is still circulating and loosening restrictions will likely lead to some resurgence in cases. 

Lee said it makes sense to keep up with mask use and social distancing, especially in high-risk places. 

"For sure in health-care facilities, long-term care facilities, congregate settings — there's a high risk to people who live there," said Lee, chair and lead physician of the Centre for Family Medicine in Kitchener.

Chittle hopes her petition will convince the province to keep mask requirements a bit longer. She also plans to send her kids back to class next week with their masks on — as is Martha Crealock. 

"My kids and I will continue to wear N95s for sure for the foreseeable future," she said. 

"I don't want to get COVID, but I'm much more concerned about spreading COVID, so I'm happy to wear a mask."