Trustees pass indoor masking requirement for Thames Valley District School Board

The motion was put forward by Trustee Corinne Rahman before receiving an approving vote during a special meeting on Tuesday night. Matthew Trevithick / Global News

The Board of Trustees for the Thames Valley District School Board voted to implement a masking requirement for indoor spaces on Tuesday night, however the TVDSB’s legal counsel noted that such a requirement is not enforceable.

The motion from Trustee Corrine Rahman was originally presented during a special meeting held last Tuesday in response to a growing number of staff absences at Thames Valley that have been tied to illness.

During that meeting, trustees voted that the motion was out of order after Trustee Meagan Ruddock voiced concerns that the group lacked the authority to pass such a motion, meaning Rahman’s motion could not be voted on.

Read more: Trustee motion to reinstate indoor mask mandate fails at TVDSB meeting

On Tuesday, the Board of Trustees met for another special meeting and board chair Lori-Ann Pizzolato informed the group there may have been a miscount on the vote that resulted in Rahman’s motion being deemed out of order.

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The vote was held again, with trustees instead voting Rahman’s motion was in order, paving the way for another round of debate on the matter.

The motion requires staff, students and visitors to mask in all TVDSB buildings “until such time as Public Health Ontario updates this guidance or the Local Public Health Units in TVDSB explicitly advise otherwise.”

“Students will not be required to submit medical documentation for exemptions,” the motion added.

Rahman began her remarks by telling colleagues the motion was within the Board of Trustees’ authority as it falls under their obligation to ensure student achievement and well-being.

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“Wouldn’t you agree that keeping schools open, staffed appropriately and providing a safe learning environment is part of our statutory obligation?” Rahman said.

During last week’s meeting, TVDSB director of education Mark Fisher told trustees the board was “north of 1,000 total absences, which is approximately 10 per cent of our overall staff,” adding that the board was significantly challenged by the number of unfilled positions.

On Tuesday, TVDSB associate director Jeff Pratt told trustees the number of unfilled positions is trending downwards.

“I’m not minimizing the operational challenges that still exist in schools, but the numbers are better than they were a week ago. I don’t have the exact number of absences at this point in time,” Pratt said.

Read more: COVID-19: Early signs show transmission plateau, but infection risk remains high, Summers says

Ruddock reiterated her argument from last week that the motion was not within trustee authority and added that public health units and the province haven’t mandated masking in schools, despite having the power to do so.

Trustee Sean Hunt, another opponent of the motion, said he believed the move would create conflict with guidance from the Ministry of Education, adding that he didn’t believe it was enforceable.

When asked by Student Trustee Harini Satheeskumar what directive would be given to staff when it comes to enforcing the masking requirement, Fisher said the TVDSB would need “a couple of days to determine the next steps.”

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“I do know in Hamilton, where this motion was recently passed, it’s basically a verbal exemption for any staff or student that wants to opt out of wearing a mask,” said the director of education.

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

The TVDSB’s general legal counsel Ali Chahbar added that a mask requirement is not enforceable.

“The Board of Trustees, you’re well within your right to pass a motion mandating masks, but the question of enforceability is a different question,” Chahbar said.

“When the government of Ontario decided to lift that mask requirement as of March 21 of this year, the end result of that was that it served to remove the enforcement mechanism that existed.”

After more than a hour of debate on the matter, trustees voted 7-5 in favour of Rahman’s motion to implement a masking requirement for indoor spaces at TVDSB.

Those in favour included Rahman, Pizzolato, Trustee Sherri Moore, vice-chair Peter Cuddy, Trustee Laura Gonzalez, Trustee Carol Antone and Trustee Sheri Polhill.

The opposing votes came from Ruddock, Hunt, Trustee Arlene Morell, Trustee Graham Hart and Trustee Bruce Smith.

Trustee Barb Yeoman did not take part in Tuesday’s vote.

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