By Charlie Senack
Masks won’t be made mandatory again in Ottawa Carleton District schools.
While the school board is “strongly encouraging” students and staff to wear face coverings in school, half the board trustees voted against the controversial motion.
Newly-elected trustee Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth, a family doctor who has been vocal about her support for COVID-19 restrictions, first tabled the motion. She pointed to the high level of COVID-19 infections and other respiratory viruses — particularly in children — as evidence for the need to mask up again.
Lindy Samson, the chief of staff at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, was one of the speakers at an in-person school board meeting on Nov. 22. She was interrupted by hecklers as she tried to speak about the unprecedented strain they faced. The hospital had to open a second intensive care unit to treat all its sick patients.
The meeting was moved online after the crowd disrupted proceedings. Most protesters were anti-maskers who opposed the motion. One man placed “notices of liability” on the boardroom table while others sang and chanted. Police had to be called and wished the mob a Merry Christmas as they were escorted out.
Trustees agreed not to debate virtually beyond 10:30 p.m. and the vote was postponed. The topic was picked up two days later during another special sitting, held virtually this time due to safety concerns.
Suzanne Nash, the newly elected trustee for Kitchissippi and Bay wards, said the first meeting was a “surreal experience,” but she never felt concerned for her safety.
Nash was one of the six trustees to vote against a mask mandate. She said her decision was based on over 200 emails she received.
“It was a very difficult decision. I possibly lost a good friend because of my decision,” Nash said via email. “Those that weighed heavily on my decision were the heartfelt stories that described the impact of the pandemic on their kids’ well-being and the need to get back to normal… If I voted with my emotions, given the situation at CHEO, it would have been a yes.”
Nash said she continues to wear a mask and believes “as a community we have gone from, ‘We are all in this together,’ to a personal choice.”
It’s not the first time the school board has voted on masks. In April of this year, a similar mandate passed by trustees. The Province of Ontario, however, said school boards lacked the power to implement such a rule. A board can ask students to wear a face covering, but it cannot send a child home or provide penalties for those who refuse.
Nash said with enforcement out of the question, it became obvious that a forced return to masking would do more harm than good for students.
“Student trustee (Antong) Hou spoke about how divisive the April mandate had been in school and with friends and family. Student trustee (Tabarak) Al-Delaimi talked about the impact on her younger brother, who had a learning disability,” she said. “Both were opposed to mandatory masking, and sounded representative of the student mindset,” she said.