Kitchener-Waterloo

All students required to wear masks at Waterloo region's public schools this fall

All students from junior Kindergarten and up will be required to wear masks at Waterloo Region District School Board schools this fall. The board says it plans to spend $1.4 million to provide students with reusable, non-medical masks.

School board says it has set aside $1.4 million to provide masks

The Waterloo Region District School Board says 83 per cent of elementary students are expected back in the classroom this fall. Board trustees voted in favour of requiring all students from junior Kindergarten up to wear masks indoors. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

All students will be required to wear non-medical masks at Waterloo region's public schools this fall.

Trustees with the Waterloo Region District School Board voted unanimously in favour of a motion brought forward by trustee Caroll Millar to require masks for all students while indoors, not just those in Grades 4 and up as mandated by the province. The move is to help curb the spread of COVID-19 when students return to class. The first day of school is scheduled for Sept. 8.

There is some flexibility in Millar's motion, including that children with medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks will be exempt, alternatives should be considered for students who find it difficult to wear a mask, staff need to approach compliance with younger students "with compassion" and there's no discipline for students who have trouble complying.

Trustees heard Monday night that preliminary numbers show 83 per cent of parents of elementary students are planning to send their children back to school this fall.

Millar, a former public health nurse who worked in schools, says with nearly full classes, that means it will be hard to physically distance. 

Board staff told trustees $1.4 million has already been earmarked to buy every student in the board five reusable masks.

'Always err on the side of safety'

Trustee Joanne Weston for Kitchener said one of her concerns about the return to school was how play-based learning was going to work in kindergarten because it often means children are close to one another.

"I really think having masks on as many children that can wear them is important," she said, noting she was pleased the plan was to encourage use of masks rather than enforcing it with younger students.

Scott Piatkowski, who represents Waterloo and Wilmot Township, agreed.

"I recognize that it is harder to train younger people to comply with a mask requirement but I think that most parents have already been working on that since the Region of Waterloo's masking bylaw came in," he said. "If they take their kids anywhere, they will have trained them to wear a mask."

He said requiring all students to wear a mask sends a strong message that things are different this year.

"People wearing masks, it's like, whoa, everything has changed," he said. "It's a reminder that, oh, I shouldn't be close to this person."

Board chairperson Jayne Herring, who represents Cambridge and North Dumfries, said she normally doesn't vote on motions, but she voted in favour of this one because she supports having as many people wearing masks as possible.

"I believe the science is there and we should always follow the science," she said. "I know this won't be perfect, but if it offers an extra layer of protection for our students and our staff we should always err on the side of safety."

Support from public health

When asked about the decision during a Tuesday's media briefing, the region's acting medical officer of health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang said she supported the trustees' decision.

But she also said she would not tell other school boards to follow suit.

"I strongly encourage children in all grades be masked," she said. "Each board will have to decide what is best for them, but I strongly encourage it."

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