Mask on or mask off? Northern Ontario schools take different approach to mask mandates

While the province gets ready to lift indoor COVID-19 restrictions on March 21, students at Laurentian University are staying masked.

Northern College in Timmins easing mask rules March 21, while Laurentian keeps mask guidelines in place

Avery Morin is the incoming president of Laurentian's Student General Association for 2022-23. (Supplied Avery Morin)

While the province gets ready to lift indoor COVID-19 restrictions on March 21, students at Laurentian University are staying masked.

The school announced March 11 that it would be continuing its mask mandates for students at least until April 30, the end of the academic year. This follows an announcement from the Council of Ontario Universities that Ontario universities will be extending both masking and vaccination policies until the end of term in order to "minimize uncertainty and disruption and to continue to support our students, staff, faculty and university communities."

That decision doesn't come as a surprise to Avery Morin, president-elect of Laurentian's Students General Association. 

"I'm still in support of Laurentian's mask policy, especially because there are students who are hesitant to come to class in person," Morin said. "I think the extra support of masks will help students who are a little bit concerned of catching COVID." 

Morin, a second year Behavioural Neuroscience and Education student, said most students likely don't mind wearing the masks, although the group is taking steps to ensure that the more social activities on campus aren't neglected.

"We've been wearing masks for almost two years now," she said. "But we want to make sure that it doesn't limit extracurricular activities so you can still go to pub night if you wear your mask and things like that."

The school's pub – The Pub Down Under – will be opened to students, but they must be masked unless eating or drinking on premises, she said.

"I think whatever we can do to keep the pub open is good," she said. "And then going forward, once Laurentian's decided that it's safe to take your mask off in class, we'll be good to go for real pub night."

In a statement, Laurentian said that the health and safety of students, faculty and staff is the school's top priority.

"We have decided to maintain vaccination and mask policies until at least the end of the current term to minimize uncertainty and disruption," the statement reads. "This decision is in line with those made by all other colleges and universities in Ontario." 

Northern College in Timmins announced that it will no longer require students to wear masks on campus beginning March 21. (Erik White/CBC )

Northern College lifting mask restrictions March 21

But not every post-secondary school is keeping the masks. 

Northern College in Timmins announced Tuesday that mask mandates would be eliminated March 21.

"Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Northern has monitored the requirements set out by government and health authorities to ensure a reasonable level of safety for our students, faculty and staff," Audrey J. Penner, Northern College's president said. "In keeping with this effort, we are once again responding to recent mandates from the Chief Medical Officer."

The choice to wear a mask or not will be up to each individual student, the college added.

Northern College's announcement came as a bit of a surprise for Jason Baryluk, the interim general manager of the College Student Alliance, a province-wide group representing Ontario's college students.

"It's an interesting move," Baryluk said. "The administration is within their power to do this, certainly. But we need to do the right thing here."

"And I think masking is a low-cost, easy mitigation strategy for us to keep each other safe, especially if we're having a full return to campus."

The vast majority of students see masking as a way to protect their health, and their loved ones, Baryluk said, despite petitions circulating that call for a full return to in-class learning.

"Again, it is interesting to see that the administration would make this move, especially considering it's going to be students in these classrooms....students and faculty in these classrooms and not the administration itself."