Masks and cohorts are not required in schools this fall to fight COVID-19 — hand hygiene, ventilation and vaccinations are the recommended ways to keep classrooms safe, says a report from Ontario’s science advisory table.
The report echoes an earlier Education Ministry memo that said wearing face coverings and dividing students into groups to help fight infection won’t be mandated this fall, and comes as the responsibilities of the volunteer advisory group are transferred to Public Health Ontario.
“We aren’t dissolving it,” Premier Doug Ford said Friday at an unrelated announcement in Niagara, after being asked about the COVID-19 science advisory table members saying they’d been told the table would be disbanded as of Sept. 6.
Ford said “they’re going to have a full-time home, rather than be put out there in limbo” and will be working with the chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore.
The science table’s advice on schools, which reopen after Labour Day, noted that the “physical, emotional and developmental health of children” has been affected by the pandemic and school shutdowns, which in Ontario were more frequent than any other jurisdictions in North America and Europe.
“School closures to in-person attendance should be considered as part of a communicable disease control strategy in only the most catastrophic of circumstances,” said the report from a group of pediatric and infectious disease experts.
Instead, they advocate for improving indoor air quality, hand washing and making hand sanitizer available, deep cleaning of schools, encouraging vaccinations, and for staff and students to remain home when sick.
While the report’s authors could not come to any agreement on when to mandate masking, the report said that “operationally, mask-wearing is likely the easiest temporary measure to implement if required to support ongoing school operations …
“It is recognized that some school staff and students may continue to wear a mask even in the absence of a mandate, and this choice should be respected; schools should be mask-friendly environments.”
The report also says that “temporary infection-related health and safety measures (e.g., masking, physical distancing, cohorting, active screening, testing) can help reduce the transmission of communicable illnesses in schools … (but) a thoughtful approach based on real-time local level analysis is recommended before reintroducing these temporary measures after careful consideration of the potential benefits and negative consequences” as well as what the rules are in the wider community.
However, it says, “these temporary measures are not expected to be required at the start of the 2022 school year.”
Earlier this month, the Education Ministry told boards that masks will not be mandatory but will be provided in schools to staff and students who wish to wear them.
In a written statement, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province has sent out more than 100,000 HEPA filter units for classrooms, implemented stringent cleaning protocols and will continue to provide COVID-19 rapid tests to schools.
“Our government’s ‘Plan to Catch Up’ is designed to keep students in safe classrooms without disruption, which is why we followed the expert advice of Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, as kids return to class this September,” he said. “Our government remains focused on providing students with a positive, safe, and normal school experience.”
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy