COVID-19: Hamilton public school board opposes province, votes to keep mask mandate in place

Trustees at Hamilton's public school board have voted in favour of implementing its own mask mandate for students and staff - even though it can't actually enforce it. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Trustees at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board have voted against ending the mandatory mask policy for staff and students of all ages on March 21.

During a special board meeting on Thursday, a motion to rescind a previous motion that had been implemented above the provincial mask mandate, requiring masks for students from kindergarten to grade three, was defeated.

Trustee Alex Johnstone also introduced a new motion that called to keep mandatory masking in place for the remainder of students – those in grades 4 to 12 – until April 15, with an amendment for the mask mandate to apply to staff as well.

The motion also involves writing a letter to the Ministry of Education to explain why the board made this decision and asks Hamilton public health to speak at a future board meeting about the local COVID-19 situation and how March Break may affect things.

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Johnstone said the decision to get rid of the masks felt “rushed”.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable just lifting it, and I’m feeling like I’m being forced to vote this way. And that’s not right.”

She said keeping the masks in place for another month will ensure the board is doing its “due diligence” with a “more appropriate and responsive exit strategy”.

Trustee Maria Felix Miller, who seconded Johnstone’s motion, called the decision to lift the mask mandate directly after March Break “irresponsible” — especially given many students and families may be travelling during their week off.

“We have a responsibility to manage risk in our communities, and it is inappropriate that the government is not allowing us to make a local decision reflective of local situations,” said Miller.

“I feel comfortable being in defiance of that direction from the ministry, at least until we have connected with our Hamilton public health unit.”

Global News has reached out to public health to ask whether a local mask mandate would be on the table, including one specifically for Hamilton schools.

On Wednesday, a city spokesperson provided a statement from associate medical officer of health Dr. Ninh Tran that said public health is currently reviewing the provincial announcement about masks, saying that more updates would be provided in the coming days.

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Despite the vote in favour of keeping the mandate in place, the board does not actually have the independent authority to implement its own public health measures.

John Bryant, interim director of education for the board, explained to trustees that any direction the board takes in terms of implementing its own public health measures would be going against the Education Act.

“I would suggest that you would be putting the board at some risk to any kind of judicial review,” said Bryant, adding that there could be policy grievances by unions or unionized staff who object to the board’s decision.

Sue Dunlop, the board’s associate director of learning services, also highlighted the challenges that may occur within schools if staff try to enforce the policy.

“I think the situation in schools could be quite difficult in terms of enforcement of this,” she said.

“If we had anyone who complained that their rights were being infringed — say perhaps to the human rights office — then we would have to tell them, yes, that their rights were being infringed and that they did not have to comply.”

Student trustee Deema Abdel Hafeez said she’s heard from many students who are concerned about the mask mandate being lifted.

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“I’ve had many students reach out, that are rethinking their learning options, whether they want to stay in-person or online, or whether they feel safe in their school environment already with our limited testing options … so many things have happened that make students feel unsafe already, and this is just an added stress.”

Abdel Hafeez also asked whether students would even be given the option to switch to remote learning, given the sudden lifting of the mask mandate.

Bryant responded that that would depend on how many students and parents requested a shift to remote learning, at which point the board would need to assess whether or not it would be possible to redeploy staff.

Vice-chair Becky Buck was the only one opposed to Johnstone’s motion, acknowledging that a more conservative approach would have been “preferable”.

“We’ve had two years of this and it would have been great to ease into some significant changes,” said Buck, but also pointed out that the ministry has already made its decision.

“We can’t ease in the way that we would have liked to.”

Board chair Dawn Danko agreed that there are challenges to introducing a mandate that staff can’t actually enforce, but said it may encourage more people to continue wearing masks for a longer period — even if they can’t actually be compelled to do so.

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“I think our communication is going to have to be clear that, while the board is requiring masks and has a motion that masks are required, the ministry does not require it. We have to be transparent in terms of what is actually required legally by families and students and staff.”

“But I truly believe this was an irresponsible decision made by the province, and I really can’t support that.”

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