Toronto

Lecce defends plan to lift school mask requirements amid concerns from educators, health experts

Ontario's education minister is defending the province's plan to end mask rules along with other COVID-19 measures in schools on March 21 despite concerns from educators and health experts about the timeline.

Ontario Principals' Council says it opposes the end date for masking in schools

Education Minister Stephen Lecce says Ontario is following a handful of other Canadian jurisdictions that have already lifted mask mandates and based on that trend, he says it is one of the more cautious provinces. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

Ontario's education minister is defending the province's plan to end mask rules along with other COVID-19 measures in schools on March 21 despite concerns from parents, educators, health experts and political opponents about the timeline.

Stephen Lecce said Thursday that Ontario is following a handful of other Canadian jurisdictions including Saskatchewan and Alberta that have already lifted mask mandates.

"I would submit, based on what we know today, we're actually one of the most cautious provinces," he said at the provincial legislature, saying Ontario is following the "clear advice" of its chief medical officer of health.

Lecce said masking is becoming an individual choice but the changes are coming along with recent ventilation improvements made in schools, including the recent provision of 49,000 HEPA filter units for schools and child-care centres.

On March 21, individuals will no longer be required to wear masks in schools, child-care centres or most other public settings aside from some deemed high-risk like nursing homes, hospitals and public transit.

Other pandemic measures including class cohorting and on-site symptom screening will end in Ontario schools on that date. The rollbacks are part of the province's plan to lift essentially all COVID-19 measures by the end of April, which was unveiled by Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's top doctor, on Wednesday.

Concerns were raised, however, about the decision to stop masking in schools immediately after families return from travel and socializing over next week's March break.

Kristin Szabo, a mom of an 11-year-old and a four-year-old in Ajax, Ont., said March 21 is too soon, especially given relatively low vaccination rates in elementary school students.

Her kids will continue to wear their masks after that date, she said, noting that her youngest is not yet eligible for a shot.

"I've already got my 11-year-old on board with this and she really has taken to heart that it's all of our jobs to protect our youngest," Szabo said.

"She said, 'part of why I got vaccinated was to protect my little sister so I'll keep wearing my mask to protect my little sister."'

The Ontario Principals' Council said it opposes the March 21 end date for masking in schools, and urged the province to pause its timeline, saying the current date "will jeopardize the safety of students, staff and our school communities."

"This announcement does not appear to be grounded in the science," the organization said in a written statement.

The organization that represents 5,400 principals and vice principals pointed to the relatively low vaccination rate of children aged five to 11 — a population that is 30 per cent fully vaccinated — and suggested waiting until after the April holidays to lift the mask rules, after assessing the impact of public health measures ending.

A coalition of children's hospitals has also urged the province to keep masks in schools for at least two weeks after March break.

Opposition politicians were also concerned about the timing.

"What's the rush," said New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath, encouraging a more slow and cautious approach. She also expressed concern about the lack of clear agency for school boards to introduce their own mask rules.

Lecce said Thursday that public health units would have to consult with the province's top doctor before deciding whether to extend school mask mandates for a longer period of time.

The Toronto District School Board was planning a special meeting on Thursday night to review COVID-19 policies and determine next steps, and promised families an update on Friday.

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