Ottawa school board meeting on mask mandate ends without decision after disruptions by hecklers

A special board meeting of Ottawa-Carleton District School Board trustees has ended without a decision on whether to impose a mask mandate.

The meeting was called in order to vote on a motion by trustee Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth that would require students and staff wear masks 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.

The four-hour meeting was marked by interruptions before trustees even got to evaluate Kaplan-Myrth’s motion.

Six public delegations spoke before the board, three in favour of a mask mandate and three against it. During the public presentations, board chair Lyra Evans had to remind the audience in attendance to keep noise to a minimum, as people could be heard clapping and shouting.

The meeting was paused after several interruptions during a presentation by Dr. Lindy Samson, chief of staff at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

Samson was describing the current situation at CHEO, saying the hospital’s intensive care unit was at 200 per cent capacity on Monday and the average wait time for non-emergency care was about 13 hours. She said there is evidence to support widespread mask use in reducing transmission of viral infections, but during these points, Evans had to interrupt her presentation to ask audience members to be quiet.

The situation came to a head when Evans began asking that people be removed from the meeting. A recess was called.

Kaplan-Myrth told CTV News Ottawa that police were also called to the meeting.

The meeting resumed shortly after a break of approximately 20 minutes to allow Samson to complete her presentation.

A second recess was called as Samson was answering questions from trustees when audience members again became rowdy after a woman was asked repeatedly to leave.

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. A recent survey of Ottawa public school principals estimates that fewer than 10 per cent of students are wearing masks in schools currently, which delegations opposed to a mandate cited as evidence parents do not want the board to impose one. 

Ottawa’s medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, submitted a written commentary for the meeting in which she strongly recommended mask use, but stopped short of saying she supported a mandate. Etches noted that COVID-19 cases appear to be on the decline and cases of RSV appear to be plateauing, but influenza is on the rise much earlier than normal. She also suggested that requiring a physican’s note for an exemption could further burden the health-care system.

Trustees voted not to continue the meeting past 10:30 p.m., meaning the motion will need to be addressed at a later date.

“Information about the possible continuation of this meeting will be shared as soon as it becomes available,” a spokesperson for the school board said.

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