‘It’s a betrayal to us’: Ontario students walkout Monday in protest of the province’s end to mask mandates

With masks becoming optional in most public settings, Monday, Ontario students are staging a walkout across the province, calling for mandates to be extended, as well as the implementation of health measures.

“I hope that it sends the message that (the government has) made a decision for Ontarians, for students, and for staff without really knowing what we want,” Grade 11 student Kaden Johnson said. “We don’t feel safe in our learning environment.”

At 11 am, participating students in cities including Ottawa, Toronto and Sudbury began leaving class for the protest, which some educators and parents also planned to join.

Students at Albert Campbell Collegiate Institute in Scarborough carried signs that read “Safer Schools 2022” and “Mask Mandates Keep Everyone Safe!”

As one of the organizers of Ontario Students For COVID Safety, Johnson and others are calling for the expansion of COVID-19 PCR and rapid testing in schools, free KN95 and N95 masks, smaller class sizes and for the government to complete the improvement of ventilation in classrooms.

For now, masks are still required on public transit, in hospitals, long-term care and other select places, but are now optional in schools, gyms, movie theatres, grocery stores and more public settings.

By the end of June, Johnson will have spent two and a half of his three years in high school, online. He’ll join the walkout today, virtually.

But being in virtual school isn’t a decision he takes lightly.

“Next year will be my last year,” he said. “If things were getting better, then I would definitely consider heading back, especially because it’s where I’d rather be.”

For now, he fears the Ontario government lifting mask mandates will jeopardize his chances.

“If you want students to excel and succeed academically and socially and developmentally, it’s … imperative that we have a learning environment that we all feel comfortable in,” Johnson said.

Some school boards, including Toronto’s public and Catholic boards, asked for more time before removing COVID-19 restrictions, but Ontario’s chief medical officer of health sent a letter that said they have to follow the province’s timeline.

Meanwhile, some universities, such as Queen’s, the University of Toronto and McMaster have decided to keep mandates in place until the end of the winter term.

Additionally, Johnson said some students worry about high-risk family members and young siblings who are ineligible for vaccination.

“Because we know so many people that are less protected against COVID-19, it’s important that we have as many measures in place as possible to keep everybody safe,” he added.

In addition to calling for more public health measures in schools, students are asking the government to suspend EQAO standard testing, which doesn’t affect students’ grades, and which Johnson believes is adding unnecessary stress to those who are struggling due to the pandemic.

Derek Song, a Grade 11 student attending school in Scarborough, said he worries that dropping the mandate will increase COVID transmission and force students online.

“It’s a betrayal to us,” Song said about the province lifting the mandate. “We don’t really get our voices heard.”

Song, who co-founded Ontario Students For COVID Safety with Johnson and several other students in January, said the group gained support after a Twitter thread of theirs went viral. He, Johnson and co-founder Sophia Alexanian were interviewed on CP24, which made the group even more visible, and inspired them to push forward.

The social aspect of school is essential to the experience, Song added.

“Stuff like extracurriculars and talking to classmates — you can’t do that in virtual school,” he said. “It’s a really different experience. You’re trapped alone.”

As part of the student group’s efforts, Song says they have launched a petition that has almost 2,000 signatures which include students, teachers and others in protest. They have also sent a letter of requests to Ontario’s Ministry of Education.

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