Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) trustees voted to encourage masking in schools at Monday’s meeting, calling it a possible solution to help the increasing spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses in the region.
“This motion is an attempt to help us find some middle ground together and do as much as we can within our educational perimeters to support the many families that want their children to mask, but also to acknowledge the many families who want nothing to do with masking,” trustee Marie Snyder said in presenting the motion.
“This is such a difficult time to be caring for children and I know that we all want to do our very best to protect them. I want to provide the agency to do that.”
Snyder said the motion is a daily request for staff and students to wear a mask if they can, whenever they can, in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses.
“I understand some parents don’t want any reminders of the pandemic but ignoring it stops us from solving this problem," Snyder added.
She also wants information posted on the board's website that "COVID-19 has not ended but is in fact worse."
COVID hospitalizations in the region in November were four times higher than the previous November, she said.
She continues to hear from many parents with concerns about repeat absences due to RSV and other illnesses, causing more disruptions in classrooms than in previous years.
The motion also asks that communication platforms be used to help circulate information from Region of Waterloo Public Health, about the benefits of wearing well-fitting masks, and that the policy to request masks be worn will take effect on the first school day after the motion is ratified by the board of trustees.
Snyder acknowledged a board mask mandate is not supported by the region’s medical officer of health, Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, as "it could potentially create hostility and divisiveness in schools," there has been a significant increase of COVID-19 cases, influenza, RSV, and other serious respiratory and airborne diseases.
“Our primary role is to educate so our job is to address the fact that COVID is still here, and masks do help reduce transmission according to an overwhelming and growing scientific consensus,” Snyder said.
She believes the request will make it more comfortable for students to mask in class, if they wish.
WRDSB trustee Scott Piatkowski was in favour of the motion.
“I think that it is the least we do, but it’s also the most we can do. I think that we continue to be in a public health crisis. Our pediatric wards are overrun," he said.
"We have a responsibility to do as much as we can to convey the importance of health measures, however, we can’t do more than ask. We do not have the authority to exceed the provincial mandate.”
Trustee Mike Ramsay did not support the motion.
“I will not be supporting the motion. It’s very clear that the province of Ontario, the Ministry of Education, has no appetite to be imposing anything that resembles a mask mandate. If they wanted to do that, I think that would have come down in the form of a directive,” Ramsay said.
“This is a cause of concern for a lot of families that I have certainly heard from who want no part of this.”
Ramsay said there’s nothing to prevent families that want to from masking kids.
“It’s a matter of choice and if the province wanted us to do it, it would have dictated that, so I will not be supporting the motion,” Ramsay said.
Trustee Carla Johnson was in full support of the motion.
“I love the idea of having a motion that supports students, teachers and the people in the community that want to slow down the transmission of these several viruses,” Johnson said.
Johnson said there is enormous pressure to not wear masks for both student and adults.
“I, as a mask wearer, have gone to many events and have definitely been in the minority, and I almost feel apologetic about it, and yet I’m not doing it for me, I’m doing it for everybody else.”
Snyder said she has heard from parents whose children are showing up with masks and are dissuaded from wearing them at school.
“This is just a request without any rewards or punishments attached,” Snyder said.
“It’s if you can, and if you are willing, then please wear a mask. And that might just be enough.”
The new masking policy will take affect on Dec. 20.