Ottawa-Carleton board will drop mask requirements after March break

Earlier Thursday, the board sent a message to parents notifying them that, on March 21, mask mandates would end at the board’s schools.

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A trustee at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board said she has called for a special meeting to discuss the possibility of extending school mask mandates beyond March 21, when the province said they would drop.

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“We are changing the parameters that we have so long believed in for keeping our kids safe at the drop of the hat and we’re planning to do so right after March break?” Justine Bell said in an interview Thursday night. “I think this is irresponsible. I think this is politically motivated. The writing is on the wall when it comes to that.”

Bell is urging other board trustees to agree to hold a special meeting where she intends to support a motion to maintain mandatory masking in schools until at least April 15.

“This should be discussed by publicly elected trustees in public,” Bell said, “whether or not we have the ability to move forward as we have for the past two years with measures above and beyond what the province has mandated when it comes to the health and safety of our students and COVID.”

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She noted that extending school masking rules could have unknown legal implications considering it would be in defiance of the provincial decision to end the mask mandates on March 21.

Earlier Thursday, the board sent a message to parents notifying them of the changes to COVID measures.

“The wearing of masks is strongly encouraged, but masks will no longer be mandatory. We ask everyone to respect individual choices and the fact that everyone has different needs and comfort levels,” Camille Williams-Taylor, the director of education at the OCDSB, said in the message.

Some safety practices, like hand-washing, enhanced cleaning, absence reporting, distribution of rapid test kits to symptomatic students and staff and daily self-screening for COVID-19 symptoms will remain in place.

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Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, recently announced that the province would be ending mandatory mask use in most indoor settings, including schools, on March 21, but parents, educators and health experts have expressed concern about the plan.

Stephen Lecce, the education minister, defended the province’s plan on Thursday. He said Ontario was following a handful of other Canadian jurisdictions, including Saskatchewan and Alberta, that had already lifted mask mandates.

“I would submit, based on what we know today, we’re actually one of the most cautious provinces,” Lecce said in the legislature, adding Ontario was following the “clear advice” of its chief medical officer of health.

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Lecce said masking was becoming an individual choice, but the changes would come along with ventilation improvements made in schools, including the recent provision of 49,000 HEPA filter units for schools and child-care centres.

OCDSB schools will maintain the following measures after March 21:

• Regular hand hygiene

• Daily self-screening for COVID-19 symptoms by staff, students and visitors will continue

• Enhanced cleaning and disinfecting procedures

• Enhanced air filtration systems

• Daily reporting of staff and student absences

• Daily reporting of absence data to Ottawa Public Health when school  absences reach or exceed 30 per cent

• Distribution of rapid antigen tests to symptomatic student and staff members

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• Daily maintenance by all classroom teachers of an up-to-date Learning Management System to allow students isolating or absent for other reasons to continue to access asynchronous learning opportunities

The following provincial changes will come into effect on March 21:

• Masks will no longer be mandatory

• Schools will no longer be required to maintain students in cohorts

• Schools will not be required to record the confirmation of self-screening although self-screening for COVID-19 symptoms by staff, students and visitors will still take place

• Isolation requirements reduced for fully vaccinated household members or those who have tested positive for COVID-19

-With files from the Canadian Press

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