Toronto high school student Evan Woo is “done” with wearing masks in class.
Not only does he miss seeing his friends’ faces — and would love to know what some teachers look like beneath the nose — but he says masks are a “barrier” to learning because voices are muffled.
“Sometimes it’s hard to hear someone speaking two desks down from where I’m sitting,” said the Grade 12 student at Earl Haig Second, ary School.
“We had a chemistry lab … and we were smelling compounds — and the mask just gets in the way of learning and what we want to do,” said Woo, 18, a student trustee with the Toronto District School Board. “When it’s safe to take them off, for me it would be a huge relief.”
That day is coming. On Thursday, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, said he anticipates the province will lift its mandatory masking policy in most public spaces by the end of March, if trends continue.
Dropping mask use in schools is generating mixed reaction from students, parents, educators and health experts. Some worry it’s too soon to lose masks in a setting where COVID case counts are unknown and many children remain unvaccinated. Others are eager to be rid of them, and return to normalcy two years into the pandemic.
Toronto mother Sara Marlowe isn’t sure what to do. She feels the province is “offloading” the decision of whether to mask onto students and their families, which makes her “very angry.”
“I’m just so tired of having to figure out how to manage risk,” said Marlowe, who picks up her children in grades 1 and 6 from school each day to eat lunch outdoors.
She says her 11-year-old is nervous about being teased if he’s one of the only kids in class wearing a mask. That’s a “terrible situation to put on our kids.”
Marlowe feels she needs more information — the science and evidence that justifies dropping masks — to make an informed decision.
“If it is no longer necessary for the safety of children and staff in schools, then great,” she says. But “it also feels scary” because the COVID vaccine isn’t mandatory for school attendance, there are overcrowded classrooms, and there’s not much class time spent outdoors.
The Star contacted all 34 public health units in Ontario to ask what their recommendation to schools in their region would be. About half did not respond. Of those that did, some said they would await guidance from the province, and others indicated they intend to follow the province’s direction, while closely monitoring the situation in their region.
On Wednesday Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, said while COVID-19 is here “for the foreseeable future” there are reasons for “cautious optimism,” which is why many jurisdictions are loosening restrictions. Ontario, for instance, eliminated proof-of-vaccination requirements and capacity limits on March 1.
De Villa noted that in Ontario, and Toronto, the peak of infections from the highly transmissible Omicron variant has passed, and daily hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions have declined significantly. Asked about lifting masking requirements, she said “we are at a new phase in this pandemic,” adding Toronto Public Health is actively speaking with the province, and other key stakeholders, about timelines. “Careful scientific observation” will continue to inform TPH’s decision-making.
One reason for optimism has been the overall high vaccination rates. As of March 1 in Ontario, 91 per cent of those aged 12 to 17 had received two doses, and nine per cent had gotten a booster. But among those aged five to 11, just 55 per cent had received a single shot and 28 per cent are double vaccinated. Younger children aren’t eligible for the jab.
Dr. Anna Banerji, a University of Toronto infectious disease specialist and pediatrician, would like masking maintained in schools, where case counts are unknown. In December, the province stopped reporting cases in schools, as infection rates soared and PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing was restricted to health workers and those at high risk of severe illness. It then started publishing student and staff absence rates, but that includes all reasons for being away, which may not be related to COVID.
“It just feels like we’re flying in the dark,” said Banerji. “You’ve got a bunch of kids, a lot of them are unvaccinated, and we know that COVID can spread between kids.”
She says masking in schools makes sense because many children are unvaccinated, and students are together in a classroom for many hours. And even though children are less likely to get severely sick from COVID, they can transmit it to those at higher risk.
Banerji encourages parents who want to keep masking their children to do so, but says there’s no guarantee they will keep them on at school.
She believes parents may be confused because in early February, Moore suggested the province would lift masking rules in most public spaces, but keep them in schools to ensure parents, staff and students “have confidence.” Two weeks later, he said mask mandates would likely lift at the same time.
In a statement to the Star, the Children’s Health Coalition — a collective of leading children’s health organizations — says before deciding on the removal of masks in schools it’s important to look at metrics such as case counts, hospitalizations and ICU numbers.
“Given Ontario’s reopening and March break, it makes sense to wait until at least two weeks after the end of the break to review those indicators and make a decision for Ontario’s schools,” said the group, which includes Children’s Mental Health Ontario, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital and Sick Kids. “Let’s wait until we better understand the impact of a broader reopening before we change measures that have successfully kept schools open since January.”
Toronto mother Bronwen Alsop isn’t anti-mask, but is “thrilled.” Her son, who is in junior kindergarten and is in a class for deaf and hard of hearing students, has a mask exemption. But her daughter in Grade 1 will drop the mask. She wears glasses and it’s been tough to see in class as they constantly fog.
Alsop, founder of advocacy group Ontario Families Coalition, hopes teachers stop wearing masks, so students can see facial expressions, facial cues and have the best sound quality. “For my son I especially hope masks are no longer worn by his teachers as he truly relies on lip reading.”
Even though her son hasn’t gotten a COVID shot because he’s too young — the rest of the family is fully vaccinated — and both her kids have congenital heart defects that will require surgery, Alsop supports them being maskless in class because she worries about speech and language development.
Across town, Marie Tattersall is “strongly opposed” to removing masks and calls the move “completely reckless.”
“I’m really concerned by this urgency to return to normal,” says Tattersall, whose daughter in Grade 6, has not returned to school since the winter break, but is keeping up with assignments from home.
Tattersall worries about the air quality at school — in addition to HEPA filters already in place, she’d also like to see CO2 monitors — and says if students are maskless her daughter won’t go back to school anytime soon. Although Tattersall’s family is fully vaccinated, and they were sick with the virus over the holidays, she worries about them getting reinfected and developing long-haul COVID.
Toronto mother Lilia Spagnuolo would prefer a more gradual lifting of restrictions. She worries her daughter, who’s in Grade 1 and double vaccinated, may contract COVID and transmit it to her three-year-old brother. Spagnuolo says she’ll likely turn to the principal at her daughter’s school for guidance on masking.
“I know (the principal) has the best interests of all the kids,” she said. “He understands the spacing situation, the classrooms, everything. And I also wouldn’t want her to be the only kid showing up with a mask when everybody else around her doesn’t have one. I don’t want her to feel singled out.”
With Ontarians heading to the polls on June 2, some question whether scrapping mask mandates is politically motivated.
“Three months from a provincial election, is it possible that this decision will be overly influenced by a selfish electoral success of this Ford government?” said David Mastin, first vice-president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, which represents about 83,000 public elementary teachers. “You know, that’s the concern that we’ve got.
“I’m not saying, point blank, this is the wrong decision. I just know that there are all kinds of pieces that are tangential for this, that could be the rationale for making this decision, as opposed to purely the health and safety of students, of families and of educators.”
Barb Dobrowolski, president of Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, which represents about 45,000 Catholic elementary and secondary teachers, has “significant concerns” about mask mandates being lifted “too hastily.” To date, there have been “very significant” teacher absences because they had COVID or had to self-isolate because of it.
“If we do lift the mask mandate too quickly, then I’d be really worried that we’re going to see that increase (in cases) and we may see increased absences, and we may see some schools having to close,” she said. “Nobody wants that. We all want students in school.”
With files from Francine Kopun
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74