Few students wearing masks in Ottawa’s public schools ahead of mandatory mask debate, principals say

Ottawa public school principals estimate fewer than 10 per cent of students are wearing masks in schools, as trustees prepare to debate whether masks should be mandatory in schools as respiratory viruses circulate in the capital.

Ottawa-Carleton District School Board staff reached out to some principals to get a sense on masking of students and staff ahead of an emergency school board meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Trustees are set to debate a motion from trustee Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth to make masks mandatory for all students, teachers and staff in schools.

“Principals reported that fewer than 10 per cent of students are wearing masks on any given day, and approximately 15 per cent to 20 per cent of staff are wearing masks,” a new report says. “Principals have also observed a slight increase in the number of staff wearing masks in recent days.”

The board is currently “strongly” encouraging students and staff to wear masks in schools, and schools have been provided signage to post at doors and around the schools.

In the motion, Dr. Kaplan-Myrth notes there has been a “significant increase” in COVID-19, influenza and RSV cases across the city of Ottawa.

“These put the health and safety of educators and students in jeopardy, as demonstrated by the intensive care unit and emergency room crises at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and the other Ottawa-area hospitals.”

Medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches and CHEO have “strongly recommended” people wear a well-fitted mask in any indoor setting to curb the spread of respiratory viruses.

The debate on mandatory masking in Ottawa’s public schools comes as CHEO deals with an “unprecedented surge” of respiratory cases this fall. The children’s hospital has opened a second pediatric ICU, cancelled some non-urgent surgeries and procedures and is now redirecting 16 and 17 year-old patients to adult hospitals for care.

“This is time for everyone to do what we know works to help stop the spread of all these viruses and to keep our kids’ health,” said CHEO Chief of Staff Dr. Lindy Samson when asked on Friday about mandatory masking in schools.

“We know that masks work. And they are one part of a layer of strategies that have served us well over the last two and a half years. The best approach to stop the most infections from spreading would, of course, be if everyone, the whole community, to put the masks back on indoors and going indoors. Each little bit helps.”

Samson is scheduled to address the board during Tuesday’s meeting, which will include 20 minutes of presentations from the public.

Kaplan-Myrth’s motion recommends the mask requirement remain in place until Ottawa Public Health declares the influenza season has ended, CHEO’s pediatric ICU occupancy is less than 85 per cent for a period of two weeks, and Ottawa Public Health no longer advises the public to wear a mask to protect against exposure to airborne and respiratory viruses in indoor spaces.

Trustees will receive a legal opinion regarding the authority of the OCDSB to impose a mask mandate and the potential risks associated with it in-camera before the meeting begins.  Staff say if trustees pass a motion to impose a mask mandate, staff will begin implementation “immediately”, with the full mandate “phased in as quickly as possible.”

Ottawa’s public school board passed a motion last spring to require masking in schools after the Ontario government lifted the mask mandates on March 21.

The board does say it has a “relatively healthy inventory” of medical masks and N95s in stock for distribution to schools, and it would last approximately four to five weeks.

LEGAL QUESTIONS

Staff warn imposing a mask mandate on students could be “subject to a challenge from a variety of sources.”

In the report, staff say there has been “considerable debate over the legal authority” to implement and enforce a mandate for students.

While the Education Act does not clearly grant boards the authority to implement mandatory masking mandates, staff said, “There are a variety of provisions,” in the act related to health and the well-being of students that could be relied upon to argue the board has the authority to implement a mask mandate.

The report also notes mask mandates will “require considerable time for educators and administrators addressing protocols, compliance, behavioural issues, etc.”

ABSENTEEISM RATES FOR TEACHERS

Staff with Ottawa’s public school board report a drop in total absences listed as sick among elementary and secondary school teachers over the last month.

According to the data, 67.28 per cent of elementary teacher absences were coded as sick leave between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15, down from 67.29 per cent during the same period in 2021. A total of 53.92 per cent of secondary teachers’ absences in the Oct. 15 to Nov. 15 timeframe were coded as sick leave, down from 62.7 per cent during the same period last year. Sick leave covers all types of sick leave, including COVID, mental health, respiratory, injury and short-term illness.

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