Toronto — On March 21, the province of Ontario took a step forward and announced the lifting of the mask mandate in most indoor settings, including schools. As a result, students can now attend class without a mask and still have the option of keeping it on if desired.
At the time, the province cited high vaccination rates, decreasing case numbers, and a decline in hospitalizations as the reasons for this move.
TDSB Requests More Time
For many people, the dropping of the mask mandate is a relief. Some see it as a step in the right direction, but others might disagree.
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB), the province’s largest school board, requested more time to lift the mask mandate and other COVID-19 measures, but the province rejected the request and continued dropping the mask requirement.
The board believed that the move was too soon due to their concerns over low vaccination rates among children ages 5 to 11 and would rather gradually ease into a maskless environment.
“To remove such measures like masking, distancing, cohorting and daily screening protections at the same time would go against our multiple layer approach to protecting our school communities from the spread of COVID-19,” a statement from the TDSB added.
Aside from the TDSB, those who requested to delay the lifting of the mask mandate are the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the Waterloo Region public school board.
Premier Doug Ford slammed the requests of TDSB and Toronto Catholic District School Board for more time, saying they “aren't medical experts” and are expected to follow the provincial directive regardless.
Despite the dropping of mask requirements, the TDSB reiterated that masks would continue to be “strongly encouraged” within their schools.
Hospital Visits on the Rise
With restrictions easing, Ontario hospitals said they are preparing to see more children as Omicron cases surge. In the last 14 days, the province has had about 9,600 cases, with 1,366 people in the hospital and 190 in intensive care (all ages).
Provincial data has shown that between March 21 — the day the mask mandate was dropped — and April 4, 75 children were admitted to hospitals. More than half of the children were under the age of 5.
In the past two weeks, one child has died in Ontario from COVID-19, and the province is seeing more COVID-19 admissions in the past week than ever, making it the highest since the fifth wave started in January this year.
On March 17, the province's COVID-19 science table predicted that there will be more hospitalizations in the next few weeks. But the increase would be less than the number of hospitalizations reported in January this year.
According to the projections, the extent of the increase in hospitalizations and the risk of contracting the virus will depend on the "number of close contacts, vaccinations status, and the spread of the more transmissible BA.2 subvariant."
The BA.2 subvariant is highly transmissible as compared to the other Omicron sub-lineages BA.1 and BA.1.1, according to the World Health Organization.
Pandemic 101: Open Slowly, Pause, and Assess
Public schools previously implemented a daily screening of the children to detect any signs of COVID in its early stage, but with the masks being dropped, so did the screening.
Dr. Douglas Manuel, a Senior Scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, said the province’s move to reopen is a big step.
“I think there's some question about the timing, like, should we have gone a little bit slower? I think the proof will tell. I think pandemic 101 is you open slowly. You pause, see how that went. Next step open, further pause, see how that went. And in Ontario, we've gone pretty quickly over the last month,” he said.
He said there are lower risks of severity in children due to more minor health complications; however, there will be more transmission between students because they are in more extensive settings sometimes and socialize a lot.
"I think for the students and the campuses, it's a little bit less about having been affected individually by COVID but a little bit more about what the role is in terms of slowing transmission down so that we don't have another peak from opening too quickly," he said.
Douglas said there is a higher risk of transmission for children with health issues such as an immune deficiency.
Generally, he said, there are higher transmission rates in people aged 15 to 30 due to “more contact and greater socialization.”
He said another consideration for universities is to think of how to accommodate those who have immune disabilities.
“I think the other consideration is how much do we want to support and accommodate people that have what I would say is an immune disability. We think of physical disabilities, and you might build a ramp to get into a classroom. But what about immune disabilities? Can you ensure that a student can go into a classroom and be able to participate without putting themselves at risk of being exposed to COVID?” he said.
Students Welcome Maskless Environment
Michelle Holdway, a private school teacher in London, Ontario, said she conducted a survey and her students completed it from March 21 to 25.
She said, “The date depended on whether or not they were at school.”
The survey aimed to gain some insight into her students’ thoughts on the lifting of the mask mandate.
“I think that offering them that opportunity also helps me to understand this. Many students are okay with it. Many students have apprehensions or ideas, or feelings about it. That they're not sure what they feel about it, or there are these students who are really uncomfortable with it. And I think that helps me too. With perhaps new seating arrangements, or how I interact with the class.”
The first day in school came as a surprise to her. She said out of the 25 students, nobody wore a mask on the first day of school.
“So [I] had my first day back in class. I didn't have any students who were still masking. So, I was surprised by that. I was expecting at least a few would continue masking, but there were actually none,” she said.
Holdway’s survey included questions about how her students prefer a specific seating arrangement or partner in group activities. She said overall her students were comfortable going back to the grouping arrangement and nobody voiced any anxieties.
Holdway said she continues to wear a mask inside the school to remain COVID-free.
But Holdway is not the only one who noticed that children are comfortable being maskless.
A mom of two children ages 6 and 8 said her children were eager to take their masks off. She asked us to conceal her identity because she fears that she might receive negative feedback from a future employer.
“Because without masks, they can breathe more easily. So they were very happy. I noticed that most of the kids and teachers [are] still worried, and I respect their point of view as well,” she said.
She said she supports her children's decisions.
Premier Ford said in earlier reports that the chief medical officer is the expert and does not make decisions lightly.
Mask coverings are made available to children and staff upon request, and the province's school boards have ensured that classroom environments will be inclusive of all students.
They ask that all students and staff show respect for students' decisions and do what makes them comfortable during this transition to a maskless environment.