Lifting mask mandate in Ontario schools 'premature,' puts in-person learning at risk, education union says

The Ontario government's decision to lift its mask mandate in school is "premature" and will put students at risk of having in-person learning once again disrupted, according to one of the largest education unions in the country. 

Masks no longer required in schools starting March 21; cohorting and distancing will also end

Ontario will scrap most mask mandates — including in schools, restaurants and stores — across the province on March 21, with remaining COVID-19 regulations also set to drop by the end of April. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

The Ontario government's decision to lift its mask mandate in school is "premature" and will put students at risk of having in-person learning once again disrupted, according to one of the largest education unions in the country. 

The statement from the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario comes as the province announced it will lift the mask mandate in schools on March 21. Other measures in schools will also be lifted on that date, including removing cohorting and daily on-site screening, as well as masking on student transportation.

"Unfortunately, it appears that a fast-approaching June election is influencing politicians' decisions to lift COVID-19 safety measures," ETFO president Karen Brown said in the statement. Ontario goes to the polls on June 2. 

"Lifting the mask mandate too soon may result in further disruption to in-person learning and negative impacts on the health and safety of ETFO members, students, and their families. Ontarians deserve stability and safety, not more chaos." 

'Just too early'

The move comes as Ontario sees approximately 10 times the number of COVID-19 cases as is being captured through limited PCR testing.

The province recorded 1,947 new cases Wednesday, putting the actual number closer to 19,000. It also reported 27 new deaths.

That's as the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron is set to become the dominant strain of COVID-19 across the province. Officials have said BA.2 is 30 per cent more transmissible than BA.1.

Speaking to CBC Radio's Metro Morning ahead of the announcement, the head of Ontario's Science Table Dr. Peter Jüni said it would take at least two more weeks to assess whether it's safe to move into the next stage of reopening. Rather than dropping masking, he said the focus should be on encouraging third doses for children who haven't yet taken it.

Jüni also cited the example of Switzerland, which dropped most masking rules in February and has since seen a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases.

Asked if Ontario's decision to remove masking was a political one or a scientific one, Jüni replied: "Well, it's not supported by science right now because it's just too early."

At a news conference announcing the decision Wednesday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore defended the move.

Moore said his decisions and recommendations to government are based on science and "have not been affected by any understanding of the political system."

Children, students and staff should still self-screen before attending school or child care and stay home if they are experiencing new or worsening symptoms, he said. The government will also continue to provide free masks for staff and students who choose to wear them, he said, and shipments of rapid tests to schools for symptomatic testing.

Masking will remain 'a choice'

Asked why the government wouldn't extend the mandate in elementary schools, Moore responded, "It's now a choice."

"Very few children have had to be admitted as a cause for COVID and/or into the intensive care unit," he said, adding today there are only three children in intensive care due to the virus.

Moore also said 91 per cent of high school students have had two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 55 per cent of those aged five to 11 have had their first dose and half of those have had a second dose.

The province has purchased 49,000 additional HEPA filters and will distribute them across the education sector, he said.

WATCH | Ontario loosening restrictions:

Ontario dropping most mask requirements March 21

2 years ago
Duration 3:57
Saying the province now has the capacity to manage the impact of COVID-19, Ontario Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Kieran Moore announced most mask mandates would be removed on March 21.

A coalition of children's hospitals, including Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and CHEO in Ottawa, had urged the province to keep masks in schools for at least two weeks after March Break, saying that public health measures are what have kept schools open. 

"We encourage everyone to continue masking in schools, if they are able," the hospitals wrote Wednesday. "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."

In a statement Wednesday, the Children's Health Coalition said it would have liked to see masks kept in place for two weeks following March Break to gauge the impact of reopening on the overall status of COVID-19 in Ontario. However, it added, it is pleased Moore has encouraged masking for those at risk and that rapid tests continue to be available. 

"With the removal of the indoor mask mandate today, for now, we encourage everyone to continue masking in schools, if they are able, to reduce absenteeism and support sustained in-person learning as a precautionary and phased approach as we come out of the Omicron wave," the statement said.

Wednesday's announcement was met with mixed reaction from parents.

Edwin Frondozo said he felt it was time for the mandate to go and is preparing his five-year-old daughter for the move. 

"She was super happy when I told her it was coming." 

Mike Dufays says he'll continue to wear a mask despite the mandate lifting.

"I've got a little girl under five who can't get vaccinated so I feel I have a higher level of responsibility ... I think it's a little premature."

Dana Wozenilek had a similar reaction.

"I don't love it," she said of the move. "I have young kids who are not eligible for vaccination so I like the protection it offers." 

With files from The Canadian Press