Province moving too fast by dropping mask mandate, teachers' union says
Masks won't be required in schools, restaurants and stores as of March 21
The province is moving too quickly to drop COVID-19 mask mandates, the head of the union representing public elementary school teachers in Windsor-Essex said Wednesday.
Earlier in the day, the province said most mask mandates will end on March 21, just after March Break, and masks will no longer be required in schools, stores, and restaurants.
But Mario Spagnuolo, president of the Greater Essex Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, said the decision "doesn't sit well" with the union's members, who would have preferred to see a more gradual approach.
"We all agree that it's time to start looking at revisiting the mandates on masks," Spagnuolo told CBC News. "But there are other measures that I think the government could have focused on right after the March Break that would have made a lot more sense, and would have worked our way towards releasing the mask mandate."
"We just don't want to risk another lockdown, a pivot to online [learning]," he said. "We've already had enough disruptions. So we just want to take our time and make sure we do it right. So it's a bit risky, and our members are concerned."
Spagnuolo's position was echoed in a media release issued Wednesday by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), which stated its members are also concerned about timing of the province's move.
"Catholic teachers are concerned that the Ford government's decision to drop school masking requirements after March Break is ill-timed, and seemingly motivated by politics rather than science," OECTA President Barb Dobrowolski said in a statement. "Schools are the largest daily gathering in Ontario, with more than two million students, educators, and staff congregating in buildings — often with more than 30 students in a classroom — for seven hours a day."
"For safe, open schools, we must proceed cautiously."
Spagnuolo said normally, local health units would consult with school boards about how best to implement provincial directives related to COVID-19.
However, given the timing of the mask mandate announcement, he doesn't know if there'll be time for proper consultations, as March Break starts on Monday.
"I don't know if that's going to be enough time to properly consult, then create the safety plan, send it out for consultation from a health and safety point of view with our worker representatives, and then implement it for [March 21]," he said. "It's a lot to ask, and I just think to make sure that this is going to work properly and for everybody's benefit, it should just be delayed at least a week or two so that we can get a good handle on what's been asked here."
In a statement to CBC News, the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board said Wednesday it was "encouraged" by the lifting of mask mandates.
"While we anticipate implementing them in cooperation with our colleagues at the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit and other local school boards, we will take the next two days to fully understand how to make these changes operational before communicating more specific details about them to our staff, students and their families," the statement reads.
In another statement, the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) told CBC News it "fully supports" the new provincial recommendations with regards to mask mandates.
"Effective March 21st, on the return from March Break, students and staff will no longer be required to use face masks and other mandated PPE, except in special circumstances," the statement reads. "However, individuals who decide to continue using the personal protective equipment will be supported in respectful, welcoming and inclusive GECDSB school communities and workplaces."
The GECDSB said as of March 21, cohorting and social distancing will no longer be required, and there will be no capacity limits in shared spaces like libraries, labs, and theatres. Students and staff will also no longer need to provide daily confirmation of COVID-19 screening.
"We are moving toward more normal, traditional conditions at school, but we encourage everyone to remain vigilant – to follow health and safety recommendations about personal self-screening, washing hands, respiratory etiquette and most importantly completing the COVID-19 vaccination regimen," the statement reads.
Spagnuolo said the union has had other priorities when it comes to COVID-19 restrictions. For example, he'd rather see cohorts addressed first: currently, students are told to stay in their cohorts during recess or nutrition breaks, and aren't supposed to mix with other classes.
Allowing more group work is another option, he said, as would removing the "checkerboard approach" to lunch that sees students taking their lunch break at different times.
"To me, those are things that could have been addressed ... before the mask mandate, and then see what the effect of that would be," Spagnuolo said. "Look at the data."
Walkerville Collegiate students who spoke to CBC News on Wednesday had mixed opinions when asked about the provincial decision.
"It would probably give a lot more freedom with people being able to choose whether or not to wear them," said Kai Griffin, Grade 10 student. "They do make your face oily and stuff, and can get quite uncomfortable."
Grade 9 student Liam Neill said he'll likely keep a mask on him, but won't necessarily always wear it.
"I'm kind of excited, but kind of not, because you might get infected," said ... "But, it's also going to be a lot easier to focus and breathe when you don't have the mask on."
Grade 11 student Braxton Van Essen agreed, saying he won't wear a mask after the mandate lifts either.
"I think that's amazing," he said of the dropping of mask mandates.
Meanwhile, a Stellantis spokesperson told CBC News Wednesday the company will still require employees at the Windsor Assembly Plant to wear masks after March 21.
"As of today, there are no changes to our masking requirements," LouAnn Gosselin, Stellantis head of communications for Canada, said in an email.
Liam O'Donnell, owner of Dr. Disc Records in Windsor, said employees there will be free to keep wearing masks if they choose to after March 21.
"We're not going to look at you odd," he said.
O'Donnell said he hasn't heard anything from customers yet about the mask mandates being lifted.
"Everyone wants to be careful," he said. "Nobody wants to get sick."