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COVID-19: Hamilton’s public school board exploring options to reimplement mask mandate

Over fears of increasing COVID-19 cases amid a sixth wave in the pandemic, Hamilton's public school board is once again calling for mandatory masking for students and staff. Getty Images

Hamilton’s public school board is once again pushing for mandatory mask wearing in education facilities across the city with the onset of the sixth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a board meeting on Monday, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) trustees backed a motion to write open letters to both the Ministry of Education and city’s medical officer of health to reinstate masking orders that expired in late March.

It comes as Hamilton schools grapple with rising rates of absenteeism.

As of April 13, three HWDSB schools have absenteeism rates above 30 per cent: Westdale Secondary School (44.5 per cent), Dundas Valley Secondary School (42.5 per cent), and Strathcona Elementary School (31.2 per cent).

The province has previously said families will be notified once schools have absences of 30 per cent or more.

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The board’s move also follows an April 5 Public Health Ontario report making a connection between the Omicron subvariant BA.2 and the potential for significant hospitalizations suggested Monday by the province’s medical officer.

Read more: COVID-19 in the classroom: Concerns linger as Ontario schools weather sixth wave

“So it talks about optimizing layers of prevention in K (Kindergarten) to (grade) 12 schools, including temporary re-implementation of masking requirements indoors and improved air quality, can reduce the risk of in-school transmission and related disruption for students, families, and educational settings,” trustee and former chair Alex Johnstone said during the HWDSB meeting.

Johnstone went on to say that she didn’t understand why the province and the city are not taking more steps to limit infections and suggested the board should take action.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that we have educators in our classrooms, so from the ability to operationalize alone, we need to be looking at masking as an option, just so we can continue to keep our schools open, which is our first priority.”

On Monday, Dr. Kieran Moore issued a “strong recommendation” for Ontarians to wear masks in indoor public settings with COVID figures trending upward, but stopped short of any mask mandate for schools.

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When asked about reinstating such an order for the education system he reiterated that free masks are available to students and workers which “can and should be used.”

“But we’ve already responded that an individual risk is exceptionally low for hospitalization in that setting, for severe outcomes in that setting,” Moore said.

“And (I) want to also continue to promote immunization for all those children that haven’t had their booster dose from 12 to 18 or who haven’t got their primary series from five to 11, which is still 40 per cent of children.”

Hamilton’s trustees previously passed a mask mandate extension during a special meeting on March 16th, prior to a return from spring break, believing it would reduce COVID-19 infection risks based on past experiences seen following a reopening.

The chair told 900 CHML’s Good Morning Hamilton in March the extra time would 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.

However, the measure was never officially challenged.

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Chair Dawn Danko agreed with the board that masking is a “simple measure” that could reduce transmission and infections in schools.

“I know that other boards have had to close classes and they have had to close schools, and that is always a real possibility, especially now that we’re seeing cases increase,” Danko said in a virtual meeting with trustees.

She said she’s heard from union representatives that staffing shortages are causing significant strain to the point where it may start having more noticeable impacts – including possible school closures.

“Certainly, people are tired and with the number of absences that we’re seeing at the staff level, there’s a lot of work happening where people are covering different classes.”

Danko’s letter to the province said absences among staff are reaching “unprecedented” levels and that steps are already underway to try and deal with the shortages.

That includes redeploying staff and using “uncertified” emergency casual teachers, but Danko warned that “the situation is not sustainable”.

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

Previously, the board also looked to Hamilton’s medical officer health with Danko formally requesting mask requirements at schools until mid-April using a Health Protection and Promotion Act directive.

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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.

Richardson responded in a COVID update in March saying she didn’t see “a circumstance” with epidemiological numbers across the province and in Hamilton that supported such an initiative.

“Really no grounds to write a Section 22 order at this point in time,” Richardson said.

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