Masks now mandatory for staff, students at Ottawa's largest school board
Students who don't wear masks will be asked to, but won't face disciplinary action
Masks are now mandatory for staff, students and visitors at all schools in Ottawa's largest school board, according to an emailed update to parents sent Wednesday evening.
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) voted at a meeting late Tuesday to again require masks indoors amid a sixth wave of COVID-19.
Eight trustees with the OCDSB voted in favour of a motion by River/Gloucester-Southgate trustee Mark Fisher. One trustee opposed the move and three abstained.
"We can't pick and choose when safety is important," Fisher said in defending his motion on Tuesday night.
The vote came three weeks after the province lifted most mask mandates and amid a resurgence of COVID-19 in Ottawa.
Rising wastewater signal far into record territory
In a statement to CBC earlier this week, Ottawa Public Health said it strongly recommends people mask up indoors and supports measures to increase mask use.
"I think the situation in Ottawa over the last couple of weeks has changed considerably," Fisher said.
The school board, which represents over 70,000 elementary and high school students, had 113 self-reported COVID-19 cases among staff and students as of Tuesday, according to associate director of education Brett Reynolds.
Several trustees spoke of classes or schools being closed in their zones.
BREAKING: Trustees with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, the city's largest school board, have just voted in favour of reinstating masks in the district's schools. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ontario?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ontario</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ottawa?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ottawa</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ottnews?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ottnews</a> <a href="https://t.co/bJsIwNoJ0s">pic.twitter.com/bJsIwNoJ0s</a>—@gqinott
CHEO, eastern Ontario's children's hospital in Ottawa, had five patients with COVID-19 as of late Monday, all of whom were admitted for reasons other than COVID-19.
Barrhaven/Knoxdale-Merivale trustee Donna Blackburn was the lone vote against Fisher's motion, saying masking isn't required in many other parts of society.
"I refuse to give people a false sense of security," she said.
"I think putting this in place will cause more people to wear masks," countered Rideau-Vanier/Capital trustee Lyra Evans, who voted in favour.
Innes/Beacon Hill-Cyrville trustee Sandra Schwartz, who abstained, said that while she's in favour of masking, she couldn't vote in favour of a motion she said can't be enforced, amounts to "window-dressing" and leads to division and distrust.
"There's no upside here, only more divisiveness and emotionally charged reactions," she said.
Enforcement likely 'somewhat soft'
Asking on CBC's Ottawa Morning, before it was announced the mandate would be in force for schools on Thursday, board chair Lynn Scott said she expected students without masks would be asked to put one on, "but if they didn't do it I'm not sure there could be any specific measure taken."
Even when mandates were previously in force, "enforcement was somewhat soft," Scott said. "Our kids need to be in school learning."
The email update says schools will call parents of students who do not comply and ask them to encourage mask use or apply for an exemption for reasons that are medical, or religious or for learning needs approved by the school's principal.
"We recognize that there will be cases of non-compliance," the update reads. It goes on to say staff have been asked to show understanding and promote awareness.
It says the board has the legal authority to mandate masks despite the province continuing to not require them, though it also says suspensions or expulsions will not be used to enforce the mandate.
As for staff, if they fail to abide by what their employer requires they'd be subject to progressive discipline that could result in being placed on leave without pay, Scott said.
Previous motion failed in March
Tuesday night's meeting marked the second time in recent weeks that masking was front and centre at an OCDSB meeting.
Before the province lifted mask mandates on March 21, trustees considered extending mandatory masking until April 8 for kindergarten to Grade 12 but ultimately didn't have the votes to defy the province.
The March 14 motion failed to pass in a tie vote, with six opposed and six in favour.
Premier Doug Ford has spoken out against school boards wishing to go their own way on masking.
"The chief medical officer is the expert," Ford said last month, adding that Dr. Kieran Moore did his "due diligence" in ending the mask mandate. "Follow the direction of the chief medical officer, plain and simple. That's what we expect and hopefully they do that."
Moore said Monday masks are strongly recommended indoors, but it's not the time to bring back those mandates.
Ottawa Centre NDP MPP Joel Harden has called on Ford's government to reinstate masking, citing Ottawa's recent wastewater data.
With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning, Kristy Nease, Krystalle Ramlakhan and The Canadian Press