Petition calls on Ontario government to extend mask mandates in schools
COVID-19 still circulating and youngest students not yet eligible for vaccine, says Dr. Andrea Chittle
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 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.
We all want the pandemic to be a memory for our kids, not part of their day-to-day. But we’re not quite there yet, and we ask everyone to continue to be thoughtful of those around them and their needs and choices when it comes to masking. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/covid19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#covid19</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/onpoli?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#onpoli</a> <a href="https://t.co/JMKd1hUNBP">pic.twitter.com/JMKd1hUNBP</a>—@CHCOntario
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. 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."