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Students arrive for in-class learning at an elementary school in Mississauga, Ont., Jan. 19.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government has denied a request from the Toronto District School Board to maintain a mask mandate in classrooms when students return next week.

Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said in a letter to the TDSB that because the “the peak of Omicron” had passed, many COVID-19 measures can be lifted.

“As we continue on this path, we are able to take a more balanced and longer-term approach to the province’s pandemic response, including in Ontario schools, by removing many of the emergency measures that have been in place over the past two years,” Dr. Moore said in the letter, obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The province’s announcement that it would lift mask mandates was met with concern from the TDSB, Canada’s largest school board, and other school boards around Ontario. Board trustees and teachers’ groups argued that students might be exposed to COVID-19 while travelling during the break, meaning the loss of masking so soon afterward could cause case numbers to spike.

Ontario was the first jurisdiction in the country to require masks in schools when COVID-19 hit. Although many parents understand why the safety measure was put in place, they are divided over whether their children should continue wearing masks when they are no longer required to do so.

Dr. Moore had said earlier this month that Ontario would be ending mask mandates in most public settings, including schools, effective March 21 – which is the end of March Break for the province’s two million public-school students.

TDSB trustees voted last week to formally request that the province and Dr. Moore delay the end of the mandate.

“We made an effort as a school board to ask for an extra week or two … . It’s now in the government’s lap. This is something they’re going to have to wear if there are issues with this,” TDSB chair Alexander Brown said in an interview on Thursday.

Ontario’s Science Advisory Table released new modelling on Thursday that predicts a moderate rise in COVID-19 infections over the next few weeks.

The Toronto school board will encourage students and staff to keep their masks on, despite the lack of provincial mandates, according to Mr. Brown. Staff will also highlight the importance of respecting individual choices, he said.

Scott Piatkowski, chair of the Waterloo Region District School Board, is among the other Ontario school board chairs who requested that Dr. Moore and Education Minister Stephen Lecce extend mask mandates in classrooms after the end of March break. In a letter, he told them an additional two weeks of masking would allow more time for the elementary-school-aged population to be vaccinated.

“I’m hopeful that many of our staff and students will continue to wear masks in indoor settings, and strongly encourage them to do so,” Mr. Piatkowski said on Thursday.

Last week, Premier Doug Ford said school boards are expected to follow the province’s lead in lifting the mask mandates, and that the advice to end the requirements came from Dr. Moore.

Grace Lee, a spokesperson for Mr. Lecce, noted in a statement on Thursday that the province will be one of the last in the country to lift mask requirements in schools. “As we learn to live with and manage COVID-19, we are supporting children and students as they get back to more normal classrooms, which is critical for their mental health following two disruptive years due to COVID-19,” she said.

Despite the end of the mask mandates, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board said it plans to continue having students and staff wear masks for a “transition period” of two weeks.

Dawn Danko, chair of the Hamilton board, said on Thursday that the two weeks would allow students who prefer not to attend a maskless school the time needed to shift to remote learning. She added that students who choose not to wear masks can apply for exemptions. It is unclear if the school board’s mandate can be enforced without provincial backing.

“We expect the majority of students and staff will wish to continue to wear masks over the short term,” Ms. Danko said. “We are maintaining the requirement.”

At least one private school has kept its mask requirement in place. St. Michael’s College School, Mr. Lecce’s alma mater, said in a statement that students will continue to wear masks, and that the requirement will be revisited after the Easter weekend.

Nova Scotia and British Columbia will also be lifting their school mask mandates after their respective March breaks.

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