Masks will not be mandatory in Ottawa’s English public schools this fall

Masks will not be mandatory in Ottawa’s English public elementary and secondary schools this fall.

A motion to introduce a mandatory mask requirement for all students, teachers and staff in schools fell in a 6-6 tie vote by Ottawa-Carleton District School Board trustees Thursday evening, following two nights of debate on the motion. The tie vote means the motion fails.

Ottawa’s largest school board will continue to “strongly encourage” everyone to wear masks in schools this fall.

Trustee Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth introduced the motion to implement the mandatory mask requirement in all OCDSB buildings and in all board activities as Ottawa Public Health and CHEO warned of a rise in respiratory viruses circulating in Ottawa this fall, resulting in a surge in patients at the children’s hospital in recent weeks.

“Sometimes it is necessary to do what’s difficult for the good of the population, for short-term and long-term health reasons, to ensure that schools can stay open, and to ensure that every student and educator has a safe learning environment,” Kaplan-Myrth said before the final vote.

“We can’t address all the issues but we can adopt a simple measure – a temporary mask requirement to do quite simply what is necessary to take better care of each other. It is our responsibility as the board of education to ensure the health and safety of our students and our educators.”

Trustees Alysha Aziz, Amanda Presley, Lyra Evans, Kaplan-Myrth, Justine Bell and Cathryne Milburn voted in favour of mandatory masks in schools, while Trustees Lynn Scott, Donna Blackburn, Suzanne Nash, Jennifer Jennekens, Donna Dickson, and Matthew Lee voted against the motion.

Both Ottawa Public Health and CHEO have been “strongly encouraging” people to wear masks indoors and in crowded public places following a surge in respiratory viruses circulating in the capital this fall. The children’s hospital has opened a second pediatric intensive care unit, cancelled non-urgent surgeries and reassigned staff to deal with the increase in patients.

Trustees met virtually Thursday evening after Tuesday’s initial meeting was marred by interruptions and heckling from the crowd. CHEO’s Dr. Lindy Samson was interrupted during a virtual presentation about the situation at the children’s hospital, and the crowd could be heard through the video of the meeting yelling at trustees and speakers.

The Ottawa Carleton District School Board received dozens of letters from the public ahead of the debate, both for and against a mandatory mask mandate in schools.

During the three hours of debate Thursday evening, trustees made several amendments to the motion including stating there would be no discipline for not wearing a mask and that people who said wearing a mask would “pose a hardship or interfere with their ability to function” would not be subject to the mandate.

“This motion is basically a mask mandate that is not a mask mandate. There are so many exemptions to it, it’s very easy not to have to follow it,” Blackburn said during the final debate about why she would not support the motion.

“I think we would have been much better off to allow staff to simply do their job to recommend that people to wear their masks. We’ve caused all this turmoil and upset in our community. I don’t believe it will be helpful to pass this because while it’s clear to me that you actually don’t have to wear a mask, it may not be clear to everybody.”

Student Trustee Antong Hou told the board meeting that if Ottawa Public Health or the Ontario Government had implemented a mask mandate, the public might have been more receptive to mandatory masking.

“This motion has divided our board, it has divided our community and it will divide our students. To most students the question on the table isn’t about the effectiveness of masks, rather the effectiveness of the mandate,” Hou said before the final vote.

“As the motion sits when students sit in class not all will have their masks on.”

Board Chair Lyra Evans told the board that if the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board implemented a mask mandate, students and staff would have worn a mask in schools.

“We are a city of rule followers because it’s the culture of Ottawa, and if we put in a rule I think that most students will recognize the reasons we have decided to do so – because we have been asked to do so by CHEO,” Evans said.

Ottawa’s largest school board says it “strongly” encourages students, teachers and staff to wear masks in schools, and all schools have been provided with signage to post on all school doors and around the school.

A survey of some school principals found fewer than 10 per cent of students are wearing masks in schools, while 15 to 20 per cent of staff are wearing masks.

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