As Ontario looks to lift it mask mandate, the head of Canada’s largest pediatric hospital advises the province to move more slowly in removing them from schools.
Ronald Cohn, the president and chief executive officer of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, said he has spoken to several families who want the mask mandate lifted in classrooms. “I say to them ‘Let’s not rush this right now.’ Are we at the tail end of the Omicron wave? No question about it. But we are not in low numbers yet,” Dr. Cohn said in an interview this week.
“Another month or so before making a decision is not going to harm anyone. It really is not. Particularly in the context that schools have done overall so well.”
Ontario was the first jurisdiction in the country to require masks in schools when COVID-19 hit, and although many parents understand why the safety measure was put in place, they are divided about whether their children will continue wearing masks when they are no longer required to do so.
In recent weeks, several provinces, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, have either lifted their mask mandates in schools or plan on doing so midmonth. Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, said recently that he anticipates the province will lift its masking policy in most public spaces by the end of March.
In an unrelated announcement on Tuesday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province would be “gradually lifting measures” on the advice of Dr. Moore so “we can create more normal classrooms” for students.
Public health officials have mandated the use of masks for students and staff as one of the key strategies to keep schools open, even though some families have challenged it. A recent review from Public Health Ontario found that schools with mask mandates were associated with lower transmission rates of COVID-19, although it was difficult to prove the extent to which the face coverings contributed. That’s because schools with mask policies also had other health and safety measures in place, including grouping students by classroom and ventilation upgrades.
When it comes to the benefits of masks in schools, Dr. Cohn didn’t mince words: “There’s no question that masking has a protective effect as it relates to transmission. I mean we know this, and we should just really universally accept this.” The government has previously listened to the advice of Dr. Cohn and his team at SickKids when it comes to pandemic-related health and safety measures in schools.
Dr. Cohn said the province should revisit the use of masks in schools about two weeks after students return from March break because public health can then assess trend lines in COVID-19 cases. It could be that masks return during high periods of respiratory infections: Dr. Cohn predicts that many families will be making personal choices around masking during the winter season when respiratory illnesses are more common.
In Alberta, Trisha Estabrooks, chair of Edmonton Public Schools, said many students in her city continue to wear masks despite the provincial government lifting the mandate.
Her board has encouraged students to wear them, but not all do. Staff are navigating that decision, Ms. Estabrooks said. “We have to respect the choice that individual kids and their parents and their families make about masking.”
Families in Ontario are already discussing the issue, said parent Kristen Siapas, vice-chair of the Greater Essex County Parent Involvement Committee and chair of her Windsor school’s parent council.
Ms. Siapas has four children. Her younger two, who have spent most of their school years wearing masks, would prefer to do away with them. Her older children, however, are “feeling a little more tentative about it,” she said.
“A lot of people are really tired of wearing masks, and I know there’s a huge push to take masks off and make kids go back to normal. But the reality is there are still people getting sick, there are still people worried about getting sick, and it’s going to be hard for some people,” Ms. Siapas said.
She hopes the government will issue recommendations on where masks are still useful when it lifts the mandate.
As for her own children, Ms. Siapas said: “I’m going to keep it open to them.”
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