As Ontario removes its provincial mask mandate for most indoor settings — including schools — beginning Monday, March 21, one Ontario school board has declared it will continue enforcement of mandatory masking in defiance of government orders to drop the measure.
In a statement released Friday evening, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) said it would continue to enforce mask-wearing for staff and students until April 1.
"Supporting staff and families during this phased approach and time of transition is our priority. We are reminding staff and students to wear a mask until April 1 and to exercise their choice by completing the mask exemption process, if needed," board chair Dawn Danko said in the statement.
Danko released the statement in response to a letter sent by Education Minister Stephen Lecce on Friday, which reiterated the province's expectation that masking and distancing requirements "cease immediately starting March 21, per provincial direction."
The letter noted that some public health measures will remain in schools, such as mandatory COVID-19 self-screening for staff and students, ventilation upgrades and enhanced air quality practices.
Ontario's remaining 30 public school boards are planning to follow the government order after Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore turned down requests from several other school boards to keep masking in place.
The provincial government says the board has no legal authority to mandate masks in the absence of a directive from a public health unit.
Danko says the school board has continued to update the Ministry of Education about its plan.
"We appreciate the ongoing collaboration and support from the Ministry of Education and Hamilton Public Health Services," she said.
Per CP24, many parents the region are up in arms against the school board's plan to keep the mask mandate in place.
As the outlet reports:
Some Hamilton parents have criticized the board's decision, saying the policy is "pointless" and "potentially unlawful." HWDSB is home to some 50,000 students.
"My kids will not be wearing masks and they will be told to have the school call me if the school tries to force them to wear a mask," said Alyssa Vankleek, a Hamilton parent.
"My child was told by the provincial government it was safe to no longer wear a mask in most settings. The school board has no right to tell us otherwise," she added.
"They personally can't mandate it," said Miranda Butler, a Hamilton mother of two elementary school students. "It's an overreach, especially if they don't have public health backing them," she added, noting that her kids will continue to wear masks anyway.
Without clear authority to do so, enforcement of the mandate is entirely in question, with HWDSB declining to comment on how the board plans to deal with students and teachers who refuse to mask.
Prohibiting a maskless student from attending school could be deemed a breach of the child's rights, according to the Ontario Education Act and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The labour union representing Ontario elementary school teachers, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has stated it opposes the provincial government's decision to remove the mask mandate.
"Ontarians have relied on public health officials to lead with a science- and evidence-based approach," said ETFO President Karen Brown. "Unfortunately, it appears that a fast-approaching June election is influencing politicians’ decisions to lift COVID-19 safety measures," Brown added.
Ontario Teachers Federation and Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers' Local did not respond to a request for comments.