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Ford tells school boards to stick to March 21 mask mandate removal

Ontario Premier Doug Ford removes his mask to take a question from a journalist as he attends a press briefing in Toronto, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021. The premier responded Friday to several school boards asking to extend mask mandates by telling them to stick to the province's end date because "they aren't medical experts."THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has told several school boards looking to extend mask mandates to stick to the province's end date because "they aren't medical experts."

Several boards had said they'd like to keep mask requirements beyond the province's end date of March 21, even for just two more weeks, to watch for any increased COVID-19 transmission from next week's March break or to allow more time to boost youth vaccination rates.

Ford made clear Friday that's not happening.

"Let me be very clear to the school boards: They aren't medical experts," Ford said after an unrelated announcement in Barrie, Ont. 

"The chief medical officer is the expert and he has done his due diligence."

Other experts such as members of the province's COVID-19 science advisory table and a coalition of children's hospitals, including Toronto's SickKids and CHEO in Ottawa, have said March 21 is too soon to lift mask mandates.

Ford said chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore has consulted with local medical officers of health, such as those in Toronto and Ottawa. 

"Our expectations to the school boards – and to the exception of the parents that want their kids to put masks on – follow the direction of the chief medical officer, plain and simple."

Toronto District School Board trustees voted during a meeting Thursday night to write a letter to the chief medical officer of health, the Ministry of Education and Toronto Public Health to request additional time for removing public health measures in TDSB schools.

The trustees asked for a response by Wednesday, but Education Minister Stephen Lecce also indicated in a statement Friday that those types of requests won't be entertained.

"School boards in this province are expected to implement this cautious plan, coupled with the ongoing improvement of air ventilation within Ontario classrooms," he wrote.

Beyond the province's March 21 timeline, masking will still be "strongly encouraged," the TDSB said Friday in a letter to parents.

"For the past two years, the TDSB has prioritized the health and safety of students, staff and school communities," the board wrote. 

"As we move to a more sustainable, long-term approach to managing COVID-19, you are encouraged to continue with the layers of protection that make you feel comfortable."

The Toronto Catholic District School Board had voted Thursday to ask the ministry to let them keep mask rules in their schools for two weeks after March break to allow for more time for younger students to get vaccinated.

TCDSB trustee Norm Di Pasquale said the board did what it could.

"I thought that taking things from a local context was working and making a lot of sense and it’s too bad that’s being taken away from us," he said.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board had voted Thursday to keep mandatory masking until April 15, according to local media reports.

Information provided this week by the government in announcing the lifting of restrictions said "individual organizations will continue to have the authority to keep requirements in place."

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said forcing schools to drop mask mandates before they're ready is not the way to make people feel safe.

"The experts say just a couple more weeks of simple masking up will get us to the finish line — so why would Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce block that?” she wrote in a statement.

Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner said school boards should be able to make decisions on masking, in consultation with their local public health unit.

"Throughout the pandemic, Doug Ford has constantly shirked responsibility and put the onus of decision-making on school boards — on everything from hybrid learning to testing," Schreiner wrote in a statement. "But all of a sudden, he’s now putting his foot down. Why?"

Other measures such as cohorting and physical distancing in schools are set to end on March 21, while staff vaccination policies are being lifted for school boards across Ontario as of Monday.

The province had already stopped tracking COVID-19 in schools, and the TDSB said Friday that its additional measure of sending positive case notification letters to affected classrooms would continue to the end of March and then will be "reassessed."

In Guelph, the Upper Grand District School Board said mandatory masking will end in its schools on March 21, as the board doesn't have the authority to extend those rules after the province lifts mask requirements.

"We know that the topic of masks can be a divisive one," the board said on its website. "We want to stress that students, staff and visitors are still welcome to wear masks in our schools, and this is their choice. Masking indoors continues to be strongly encouraged."

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board told parents that mask mandates would end March 21, but noted that everyone will have different comfort levels.

"We have travelled a long and difficult road together these past two years and repeatedly we have seen that working together in a culture of respect and empathy is essential to a successful transition," director of education Camille Williams-Taylor said in a statement.

The Ontario Principals' Council has also opposed the March 21 date, saying it "will jeopardize the safety of students, staff and our school communities."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2022.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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