COVID-19: ‘This is within our authority,’ Hamilton school board chair says of extended mask mandate

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The chair of Hamilton’s public school board says a “vast majority” of students, staff and families adhered to its mask mandate extension on the first day back after spring break.

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) chair Dawn Danko told Global News the administration appreciates the many who opted to follow the motion implemented by trustees last week despite the province lifting those rules for learning facilities.

Read more: Hamilton’s public school board extends mask mandate to April 1

“They were respectful, they were considerate of others,” Danko told 900 CHML’s Hamilton Today.

“We’ve been really focusing in on having a kind environment as we move through this next phase in the pandemic.”

Local trustees passed the mask extension during a special meeting on March 16 believing it would reduce COVID-19 infection risks based on past experiences amid the pandemic where schools have seen case spikes following a reopening.

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The chair told 900 CHML’s Good Morning Hamilton last week that the extra time will allow the board to accommodate students who want to switch to remote learning if they’re not comfortable with the reduced restrictions.

The move caught the attention of Education Minister Stephen Lecce, who told trustees in a letter days after that they are required to follow provincial guidelines and expected to nix the extension.

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Danko says despite the note, the board is committed to retaining the two-week transition period and says those not able to wear a face covering can make a request for an exemption.

“This is within our authority to proceed with this transition plan,” said Danko.

“Although different people would speak differently in our board meetings, I have always pitched this and suggested this was a transition plan and I’ve had regular communication with ministry staff to make sure that we have support for this.”

Read more: Ontario rejects TDSB’s request for more time in lifting mask rules in schools

Originally, the board looked to Hamilton’s medical officer health sending a request to maintain mask requirements at schools until mid-April using a Health Protection and Promotion Act directive.

The Section 22 order would have allowed Dr. Elizabeth Richardson to make an order where reasonable and probable grounds of a communicable disease posed an immediate risk of an outbreak.

However, trustees opted to go it alone with the April 1 extension, believing it would end before a provincial directive could put it out of order.

In a pandemic update on Monday, Richardson said she respects the public school board’s decision to extend the mask mandate — but says there was no need for public health to get involved in the decision.

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The top doc said the province’s decision was based on current provincial epidemiology data and vaccine coverage, which suggests the whole of Ontario is in a “different place” compared with past reopenings with the ability to mitigate virus spread in such settings.

“Really looking at how things have significantly improved and not seeing a circumstance that’s at all different here in Hamilton … really no grounds to write a Section 22 order at this point in time,” Richardson said.

A number of school boards, including Toronto, Toronto’s Catholic school board and Waterloo Region public school board, asked the province last week for permission to keep mask rules in place at their institutions.

Read more: Ontario rejects Waterloo board’s request to have mask mandate extended in schools

The entities cited low youth vaccination rates and a need to watch for increased COVID-19 transmission after March break as reasoning for the request.

However, the province rejected the requests, saying it has better prevention and response tools to deal with the impact of COVID-19 in schools during this reopening.

The HWDSB is hanging its hat on a statement sent to Ontario boards in August 2020 in which the province allowed discretion to go above and beyond minimum standards of safety.

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“They have never retracted that statement and we did not receive a directive from the ministry,” Danko said.

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