Toronto teacher Kelly Wright doesn’t know what to expect this week, now that staff and students have the option of being masked in school for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
But before the March break she told her Grade 1 and 2 class her plans. She would continue to wear her mask—until the last child takes theirs off.
She wanted no one to feel alone. “I just wanted them to know that I would be there to support them,” Wright told the Star.
Beginning Monday, the province will end mask mandates in schools, along with cohorting, physical distancing and daily health screening checks. Several school boards, including Toronto’s Catholic and public boards, requested more time to implement the changes, but the province stuck to its timeline. So while some boards recommend masks — at the Toronto District School Board they are “strongly encouraged” — it’s up to individuals to decide what to do.
Wright anticipates many of her students will initially wear masks because parents have been “very careful” about COVID risks, but suspects that over time she’ll see more toothy grins.
While she’s heard many teachers discussing whether to mask, she came to her decision after remembering a news story about a student who felt singled out for being the only child wearing a mask, yet whose spirits were lifted upon seeing a masked school bus driver.
“I wanted to be able to do that for my kids, because I didn’t want them to feel like they were alone either,” said Wright, who teaches at Whitney Junior Public School, near Mount Pleasant Road and St. Clair Avenue East .
Wright says wearing a mask for the “foreseeable future” seems sensible, because she has a two-year-old and her father is immunocompromised. And while some teachers feel unsafe about the mandate being lifted, particularly since vaccination rates remain low among children, she isn’t nervous, noting she’s healthy, triple-vaccinated, has a HEPA filter in her class and opens the windows.
Danielle Bischof, whose daughter Maya is in Wright’s class, says when she heard of the teacher’s plans to stay masked until the last student removes theirs, “it brought tears to my eyes.”
“I felt so relieved,” said Bischof, noting Maya is “happy to know that she won’t be alone in wearing a mask after spring break.”
“Every family has their own reasons for masking, or unmasking, and I’m so happy that my daughter’s teacher has such an inclusive approach to help the kids through this transition as the mask mandates end.”
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, which represents English public boards, is strongly recommending students and staff continue wearing masks.
“I’ve had parents contact me … they want to send their child to school with a mask on and are very afraid that their kid is going to be peer-pressured and bullied,” said Abraham. “We just really, really hope there will be a lot room for compassion and empathy around whatever decision anybody has made.”
Barb Dobrowolski, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, the union representing Catholic elementary and secondary teachers, says “There has been a lot of discussion about making sure students feel comfortable with whatever (masking) choice they make.”
But some anonymous comments on social media, purportedly written by teachers, have suggested otherwise. One TDSB teacher, who wasn’t anonymous, posted on Twitter that “some best practices” as of March 21 would be “Classrooms wa segregated seating plan. Students split into masked/unmasked sections. Hepa filters placed between the two.” In a statement, the TDSB says the opinion of this teacher, from Orde Street Public School, “does not reflect the position” of the board, noting “this will not be happening in any of our classrooms.” The teacher is on home assignment, pending the outcome of an investigation.
Jamie Thom, vice-president of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto, the local union representing public elementary teachers, says “segregating students on any basis is problematic and it’s certainly antithetical to the healing that is required after having gone through two very troubling years where students have felt very isolated … The feeling that our members have is that we need to move beyond this and have an inclusive approach.”
Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, would have preferred “a regional or board approach” in lifting the mask mandate in schools. Masking “is not a hard thing to do” and it’s a safety issue, “especially when you have children who don’t understand the implications. And it’s just one added layer of safety to keep kids safe.”
Of concern, she says, are the low vaccination rates among children. As of March 18, 55 per cent of Ontario’s children aged five to 11 had received at least one dose, while 31 per cent were fully vaccinated. Among those aged 12-17, about 90 per cent had at least one dose, while 92 per cent were fully vaccinated. In most cases, the province considers anyone with two or more doses fully vaccinated.
Some students are also worried about the mandate lifting, with walkouts planned at various Ontario schools on Monday morning in protest.
Trustee Rachel Chernos Lin, who introduced the motion at the TDSB requesting more time, worries lifting the mask mandate could exacerbate inequities. She notes TDSB data shows an “inequitable impact of the pandemic,” with the majority of virtual school students coming from low-income families, multi-generational households and living in more crowded situations.
“When we look at who might feel most compelled to go virtual, or not send their kids to schools because of fears about no masking, I worry about who those kids are,” she said. “Our own data tells us that kids are happy in school, they learn better.”
She’s also concerned about how lifting the mandate may impact immunocompromised and medically fragile people. The TDSB has schools for students with complex physical, developmental and medical needs, and Chernos Lin says parents are worried about sending their children.
While masking rules are changing in publicly funded schools, some private schools will keep masking a while longer. Because private schools operate as businesses or non-profit organizations independently of the Ministry of Education, they can keep their masking rules.
Dr. Alanna Golden is “relieved” the private school her sons attend will follow the provincial guidance and make masks optional.
“My kids are ready to take off their masks and we are ready to prioritize normal for our kids,” said Golden, a former social worker in children’s mental health and a practicing primary care physician in Toronto. She added that both boys had asymptomatic COVID and she has no concerns about their risk of severe illness. But she respects the decisions of those who choose to keep masking.
“I have spoken to my kids at length about respecting individual choice whatever that might be.”
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