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School mask mandate ruled out, despite Public Health Ontario caution about kids and COVID

Moore says no significant threat to children's health, as Ontario Liberals point to report that warns in-person learning may be in jeopardy
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A warning from Public Health Ontario that the severity of COVID-19 cases in children is likely to increase has prompted additional calls for mask mandates in schools.

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca is reiterating his demand that the Ford government mandate masks in essential indoor settings such as schools after he said the provincial agency "quietly" issued a "dramatic warning" on Friday, April 8.

Public Health Ontario said that "the number of children with severe disease is likely to increase" due to rising transmission of the BA.2 variant, the lifting of public health measures, and limited eligibility and two vaccine coverage in children.

"This may impact pediatric hospital and intensive care unit (ICU) capacity, and also lead to further disruption to in-person learning in Ontario,” the agency report said.

However, the province's top doctor said yesterday there has been no significant threat to the health of children.   

In his first COVID-19 update in a month, chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore also said children are encouraged to screen before going to school, use tests that are distributed weekly to all students and get vaccinated.

Moore acknowledged the increase in the positivity rate and rise in hospitalizations — trends that will continue for several weeks.

"It is clear we are in the sixth wave of the pandemic," he said, but the province has no plans to reintroduce mask mandates for indoor settings unless the health-care system becomes compromised.

York Region medical officer of health Dr. Barry Pakes has strongly recommended wearing masks indoors since public health restrictions began to lift.

Newmarket-Aurora provincial NDP candidate Denis Heng said he supports the return of a mask mandate for schools.

"I think that masks are part of a prudent layer of protection, especially in areas such as schools. . . (Students) are in enclosed spaces right now, for six plus hours a day, with teachers who are working in this environment and are trying to protect their families, their communities, that it would be the prudent thing to continue on with mask mandates in a school setting," said Heng.  

Liberal candidate Sylvain Roy and Conservative candidate Dawn Gallagher Murphy did not respond to requests for comment.

With COVID-19 cases rising in York Region and across the province as indicated by wastewater readings, some parents are also calling for the return of mask mandates, and that school boards notify them of known COVID-19 cases, as the Toronto District School Board has begun doing.

York Region school boards have said they will not be taking those steps unless advised to do so by public health authorities.

Schools are still required to report classroom closures and absenteeism rates daily, but the rates are impacted by absences other than COVID-19. 

On April 12, combined absenteeism of students and teachers in Newmarket ranged from a low of 8.2 per cent at St. Paul Catholic Elementary School — an increase from 2.5 per cent on April 8 — to a high of 19.2 per cent at St John Chrysostom Catholic Elementary School. 

Only two schools of 4,844 in the province are closed currently, according to the province.

On Friday, Ministry of Education data showed 15 per cent of students and teachers were absent from school last week (1-in-7), and 235 schools had more than 25 per cent of their students and/or teachers absent last Thursday (1-in-4), according to a Liberal Party news release yesterday.

Ontario Liberals are calling on the Ford government to return mask mandates in essential indoor settings such as schools, pharmacies and grocery stores, as well as to forgo plans to "prematurely" end mask requirements in hospitals, long-term care facilities and on transit April 27.

Doris Grinspun, the head of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, has joined the call for the Ford government to abandon its plan to end all masking mandates on April 27.

— With files from Debora Kelly