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Last August, when provincial COVID-19 numbers hovered around 100 daily new cases, guidelines were developed for mask use in Ontario public schools.
Unlike other boards in Ontario, the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) did not require children in primary grades to wear face masks. Since then, provincial cases have exceeded 3,000 per day including several hundred students, and more than 20 schools have been forced to close.
Additionally, a new, more contagious form of the virus is circulating in Ontario. Yet the August guidelines for mask use in schools have not been updated.
As a concerned parent of a Grade 1 child in the SCDSB, I wrote to board chairperson Jodi Lloyd before the holidays asking if more could be done to protect children in school. Making masks mandatory for children in primary seems like an obvious and easily implemented measure to help stop the spread of COVID-19 within our schools and community.
Ms. Lloyd declined this suggestion and deferred responsibility on the issue to Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) and provincial government guidelines.
In her response, Ms. Lloyd explained that SCDSB’s refusal to make masks mandatory for these children is “based upon the most current medical evidence related to COVID-19” and “the expectation of the Minister of Education that our board position on these issues be in keeping with the recommendations of our local medical officer of health."
She then directed me to SMDHU “to seek further clarity."
When I reached out to SMDHU as suggested, I was surprised to learn that the school board itself actually has final say. SMDHU personnel who I spoke with were unequivocal: they provide guidelines, but policy decisions are up to the school boards.
This is highlighted on their website which notes that while primary students are encouraged but not required to wear face masks indoors, “some school boards and schools are requiring face-masks in younger grades, please check your school or school board policy.”
I also contacted (Simcoe North) MPP Jill Dunlop’s office, which affirmed that while the Ontario government supplies health guidelines, decisions like masking are “under the purview of the school boards.”
The absence of mandatory mask use gives rise to another concern: inequality. There are some schools in Simcoe County where primary students are proactively encouraged by teachers, administrators and parents to voluntarily wear masks, resulting in a high level of compliance and safety.
Yet my child is exposed to increased risk simply because of attending a school where, despite the good efforts of teachers, masks are neither mandatory nor uniformly encouraged.
Is it acceptable that the risk of catching COVID-19 is higher for some SCDSB families than for others? Or that SCDSB families are afforded less protection than those in jurisdictions requiring masks in primary grades? These seem to me grave inequities, and further show why SCDSB should be mandating masks: all children in the county deserve to be protected in the same manner with nothing left to chance.
SCDSB has the clear means, authority and duty to move beyond the initial guidelines for mask-wearing in schools. It’s not a difficult call to make. They should act now before schools reopen after the extended break.
The argument around whether masking helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 ended months ago, and there exists no rational nor ethical basis for denying primary students the protection afforded by masks.
The Toronto District School Board has mandated masks for primary students since September with no ill effect to student development. Cases are now more than 30 times higher than when mask guidelines were suggested.
SCDSB leadership and fidelity to its community will be defined by what it does in this worsening pandemic.