Masks will not be mandatory in Ontario schools this September, the province’s education ministry says.
In an email to CBC Toronto on Monday, the ministry said most health and safety requirements for the upcoming school year will remain unchanged from the end of the 2021-22 school year, which includes the voluntary use of masks.
“The government will continue to provide free high-quality masks for students and N95s for staff, if they choose to use them, all which remains unchanged from the 2021-22 school year,” reads the email.
“School boards will continue to have access to rapid antigen tests to be used in accordance with provincial testing guidance.”
The ministry adds that leading medical experts, including the Children’s Health Coalition and medical officers of health, were consulted in this year’s health and safety plan.
The news comes days after the province’s chief medical officer of health said the seventh wave of COVID-19 in Ontario has peaked.
However, when the mask mandate was lifted in schools last year, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario called the move “premature” and said it would put students at risk of having in-person learning disrupted once again.
Late last month, Education Minister Stephen Lecce committed to keeping Ontario’s two million students in class for in-person learning this school year.
“We have taken action by deploying over 100,000 standalone HEPA filter units to classrooms and learning spaces, enhanced cleaning, and continued access to rapid antigen tests,” Lecce said in a statement.
“Our government remains focused on providing students with a positive, safe, and normal school experience.”
Not a surprise to school board, union
Robin Pilkey, Parkdale High Park school trustee for the Toronto District School Board says they weren’t surprised by the news.
“There is actually no difference between when people left in June, to what’s going to happen in September,” said Pilkey.
Pilkey says until last spring, school boards had the ability to mandate masks for all staff and students, even if the province only specified mandatory masks for certain grades or ages. But since mask mandates were lifted last spring, she says current legislation removed that option.
“We can’t suddenly go, ‘Oh, we want everyone to wear a mask’ because under the legislation, we can’t do that,” Pilkey told CBC Toronto.
Pilkey says schools are continuing to follow all mandates under provincial guidelines, including ventilation requirements, to keep schools safe. She notes anyone is welcome to wear a mask if needed.
“In circumstances when people felt like they couldn’t come back to school, online schooling exists. We’re doing what we can with that.”
Karen Littlewood, the president for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, also says she wasn’t surprised by the news. Despite this, she says the union has a lot of concerns headed into fall, including COVID-19 vaccination rates, a resurgence in cases, distancing in classrooms, proper ventilation, the disruption to in-person learning, and even emerging monkeypox cases.
“We need to make sure that people are informed and that they have all the protections that they need,” said Littlewood.
Littlewood says moving forward, the union will continue to consult with medical experts to make sure schools stay safe.
“I think we find ourselves in a spot in the middle where people are going to decide, and hopefully nobody will be shamed or embarrassed because they choose to wear a mask,” said Littlewood.
“But the more people who wear masks, the more people are vaccinated, the better protected everyone’s going to be.”