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Teachers union concerned over allegations some Hamilton students not wearing masks

Don Mitchell / Global News

The leader of the union that represents tens of thousands of Ontario secondary school teachers says they’re getting calls from members who claim some students are “being exempted” from mask-wearing without any documentation.

President of the local Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) Daryl Jerome says teachers have told him that students are walking around without masks, adding in many cases it’s simply not known if it’s for legitimate medical reasons or they’re just “flagrantly defying” protocol.

“I’m hearing from teachers that are walking the halls and supervising study halls. They say as soon as they leave, students are taking off their masks and wandering around without them and engaging in conversation,” Jerome said.

Read more: ‘Why is no one talking to us?’: Toronto high school student shares concerns about returning to class

In August, both the Hamilton school boards mandated the wearing of masks or face coverings for all students from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 12 with the exception of those with medical issues that would prevent them from using one.

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Associate director of the HWDSB, Peter Sovran, says guardians are supposed to indicate to schools any issue that might prevent them from wearing a mask throughout the day.

“Parents would have to indicate that their child or student has either an underlying medical condition, is unable to take the mask on and off independently, or might have a sensory issue or a mental health issue that would preclude them from wearing a mask,” said Sorvan.

 

Sorvan says just over nine per cent of the student population completed paperwork for an exemption.

However, Jerome says the problem is that protocol does not require the student to provide any proof that they have a condition that exempts them from wearing a mask.

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“My members are in front of students that aren’t wearing them and they’re concerned,” Jerome said.

He says the problem is also exacerbated by the fact that Hamilton secondary students can’t opt for virtual learning since the city’s school board doesn’t offer a secondary virtual school.

Sorvan told Global News a provision to require proof was not put in place as per consultations with Hamilton and Ontario’s public health who suggested such an obligation would overburden the health system.

He goes on to say several principals in HWDSB schools have reported that some who asked for the exemption are in fact wearing masks or wearing masks for part of the day.

“In terms of hearing about any students not wearing masks appropriately, we haven’t heard that from any of our schools,” Sorvan said.

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Read more: Hamilton public school board reduces class sizes, staggers start for fall return

The director also says it’s “early days,”  since elementary schools had just half classes earlier this week and that Wednesday was their first full day back.

For high schools, it was similar with Grade 9 and 10 cohorts attending on Monday and Tuesday and Grades 9 thru 12 attending together for the first time on Wednesday.

“We’re certainly hearing that the wearing of masks is something that is happening in our schools,” Sorvan said.

Ontario’s school reopening plan only requires non-medical or cloth masks indoors for Grades 4 to 12, which includes on school transportation.

Students in kindergarten to Grade 3 are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks in indoor spaces or on transportation.

However, schools may have additional requirements for students.

All teachers in schools must wear masks, with reasonable exceptions for medical conditions.

School staff who are regularly in close contact with students are provided all appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).

HWDSB updates COVID-19 protocols

On Wednesday, the HWDSB updated its protocols on daily screenings and PPE for staff. The board’s chair and director of education said the adjustments were made as staff continuously learn new routines amid the new school year.

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Daily Screening

The HWDSB says as per an attestation, guardians are responsible for screening their children daily for COVID-like symptoms. Students are to remain at home if they show symptoms. A daily screening checklist, can be found on the HWDSB Parent Portal.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) changes for staff

Staff are now only required to wear face shields inside a school when physical distancing of 2 metres cannot be assured, as per new guidelines from the ministry of labour. Masks will still be required to be worn by teachers at all times including outdoors. Eye protection is required outdoors only when physical distancing of 2 metres cannot be maintained.

Bring a lunch

The board is encouraging students to bring their own lunches and return all parts of it (utensils and garbage) to the bag or container it came in.

Schools are also asking that all students bring their own mask, a labelled water bottle, and hand sanitizer of 60 mL or less (optional).