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opinion

Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.

In August, 2020, as the first pandemic summer drew to a close and the first bona fide pandemic schoolyear approached, Ontario families faced a decision: send their kids to school in-person or keep them home to learn remotely. Weighing the in-school option, many anxious parents asked, “But how will they possibly manage an entire day in masks?”

The kids showed us how. While parents scrambled to procure a variety of perfectly-fitting, pleasingly-patterned, suitably-coloured face coverings, kids just put the damn things on and got on with it. All they wanted, having spent the last half year stuck at home on computers, was to get back on the playground, chat with their friends and raise their actual hands in an actual classroom.

For the past two years, mask mandates have made in-school learning possible, preserving the mental health of many students, not to mention their families. And now they’re coming to an end; on March 21, Ontario and Nova Scotia will join the prairie provinces, New Brunswick and Quebec in no longer requiring masks in most indoor settings – including schools. Students in British Columbia will no longer be required to wear masks after their spring break ends, as well. In Newfoundland and Labrador, students must continue to mask until at least April 14.

Why now? Because the pandemic is over? Because students and teachers objected en masse? Because Ontario’s Science Table – the expert panel tasked with informing the government’s pandemic response with science and evidence – recommended it? No, none of those things. The mask mandate is being lifted because, as the walrus once said, the time has come.

“We have to move forward from this,” said Premier Doug Ford on the day of the announcement, striking a grandfatherly tone. He lavished praise on Ontarians for their co-operation through these tough times, and on himself for crafting the most cautious pandemic response in North America. But now, he explained, the tide is turning. “People are exhausted,” he said. “And the poor kids in those classrooms…”

Backing up Mr. Ford was Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore, who chose his words carefully. “Removing the mask mandate does not mean the risk is gone,” he said at the March 9 news conference – a day that saw 751 people in Ontario hospitalized with COVID-19 and 27 deaths linked to the virus.

In an abrupt departure from the “all in this together” mantra, Dr. Moore explained that Ontarians can now base their mask-wearing practice on individual “risk assessments.” “It’s now a person’s choice to wear a mask and I certainly encourage people to continue to wear a mask,” he told Breakfast Television’s Tammie Sutherland, steadfastly refusing to answer her actual question: why March 21, the day kids return from their March Break, from the beaches, ski hills, malls and movie theatres that have been off limits for the past two years? Why not wait a couple weeks to see how that all plays out, as a coalition of children’s hospitals, the Ontario Principals Association, the head of Ontario’s Science Table, the elementary teachers’ union and numerous schoolboards have formally requested?

Ontario’s election-facing Premier may relish the symbolism of the ditched mask but for those whose professional lives revolve around children, masks are anything but symbolic. Elementary teachers in the province spend their days in closed spaces with a population of 5-11 year-olds, 70 per cent of whom are not fully vaccinated. Ronald Cohn, the president of SickKids Hospital who has advocated forcefully throughout the pandemic for keeping kids in school, calls the decision premature.

“Why?” was the reaction of my sons, 12 and 13, when told that the mask mandate was being lifted. Rarely in agreement on anything, they agreed they would keep wearing masks anyway. Throughout the pandemic, my kids have been far less concerned about the virus than its repercussions, namely isolation and exclusion; neither has been infected with COVID, but exposures to it have deprived them of sports events, parties and weeks of school. They have not enjoyed the serial probings of their nasopharyngeal nether-reaches. For them, the mask is a negligible price to pay for – yes, truckers – freedom: freedom from illness, and freedom to live a relatively normal life under abnormal circumstances.

The most hardnosed mask-liberationist will see kids like mine as misguided lambs, already brainwashed into blind conformity. Actually, they’re just pragmatists, guided not by ideology but rational calculation: masks don’t really have a downside and COVID has several.

Of course, nothing prevents children who feel this way from continuing to wear masks. But as statistics from jurisdictions that have lifted mandates bear out, infections will rise in their absence and that will be a problem for the more vulnerable among us, for families that choose not to send their kids to school given the added risk and for schools that are overwhelmed by outbreaks. This won’t necessarily lead to school closings, but it will at the very least perpetuate the continuing rotation of substitute teachers, and school board recruits who substitute for teachers once the professional supply runs dry.

Masks in schools are not forever. In fact, it’s probably a matter of weeks before the post-March Break surge in infections has passed, classroom windows are thrown open, spring blows in and the medical experts who have shepherded us through this pandemic feel confident that they’re no longer needed.

The kids can wait. It’s the adults who need to learn a little patience.

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