Administration with the Thames Valley District School Board are meeting on Wednesday to plan next steps after a masking requirement was voted in by the Board of Trustees.
Put forward by Trustee Corrine Rahman, the motion passed by a vote of 7-5 during a special meeting of trustees on Tuesday night.
The motion came in response to a growing number of staff absences at TVDSB and recent guidance from Public Health Ontario that suggests reimplementing a mask mandate may help the province in protecting itself from the sixth wave of COVID-19.
Under the now-approved motion, staff, students and visitors must all wear a mask while inside 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.
In an email to Global News on Wednesday morning, a spokesperson for TVDSB said administration is meeting “to discuss how the Trustee motion can be operationalized in schools and TVDSB buildings.”
“Once final decisions have been made after meeting with the Ministry of Education, clear communications around next steps will be shared with TVDSB staff and families,” the spokesperson added.
Questions surrounding the enforceability of the requirement emerged during Tuesday night’s meeting, during which TVDSB general legal counsel Ali Chahbar responded that the board lost its enforcement mechanism once the province lifted mask mandates in schools on March 21.
Nevertheless, the move to reinstate masking earned conditional praise from the head of the union representing elementary teachers at TVDSB.
“If it is something that helps keep everyone safe at the school and keeps the school open smoothly so that teaching and learning can continue. It’s probably something that we need to have in place,” said Craig Smith, the Thames Valley Teacher Local President for the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.
Smith says legal counsel obtained by ETFO disagreed with Chahbar’s interpretation of the enforceability of the masking requirement, adding that ETFO was told enforceability hinged on whether the requirement was viewed as reasonable by a third party, such as an arbitrator.
“The issue is, is there the will to require the masks in school? I think that’s really what the board, as employers, is struggling with at this point,” Smith said.
Regardless of whether or not it’s an enforceable requirement, Smith said what’s needed now is clarity on what to do if someone refuses to wear a mask in a TVDSB building.
“I think that, for both students and teachers, is something that the board needs to clear up, so that we are making sure that this doesn’t become yet another challenge in an already challenging school year,” he added.
Speaking to Global News during the Wednesday morning school run, Matthew Bissell, a parent at Lord Elgin Public School, said the requirement doesn’t seem like a big deal as he finds masking to be a minor inconvenience and common courtesy.
“If we don’t want people, normally before COVID, coming to work with a cold, like restaurants or whatever, I really don’t see how it’s too much of a difference. If you’re sick, don’t come to work, if you’ve got to go to work, then put the mask on, wash your hands, do the simple things and it helps everybody,” Bissell said.
He added that he doesn’t think a fully enforceable masking mandate would’ve been the most helpful option for school boards.
“As we’ve seen through the Freedom Convoy and whatnot for the last month, people will obviously push against when they’re told, ‘hey, do this.'”
Tuesday’s vote made TVDSB the latest Ontario school board to reintroduce a mask mandate after trustees at Ottawa’s largest public school board voted in a similar move last week.
Also last week, Hamilton’s public school board committed to exploring options to reimplement a mask mandate.