Masks in Toronto schools: de Villa urged to re-examine

Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health has been directed to “urgently explore” the possibility of re-issuing mask mandates, especially in schools.

During Tuesday’s monthly Board of Health (BOH) meeting, Dr. Kate Mulligan introduced the motion, which aims to “reduce the spread of respiratory viruses and protect the capacity of pediatric care services.”

A parent of young children, Mulligan told the board about how she recently had to rush one of her children into the resuscitation room of her local ER.

“I shudder to think what would have happened if that resource wasn’t available,” she said.

“It was a very scary experience to have as a parent and I’m only one of thousands of parents who are finding themselves in this position right now.”

A health equity advocate and professor at University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Mulligan said there needs to be a “renewed sense of urgency” when it comes to how the city approaches the rising number of cases of COVID-19 and other respiratory infections, especially in light of the strain hospitals across the province have seen in their emergency departments as of late.

Mulligan said at this point, the BOH doesn’t have all of the data available to directly ask de Villa to re-issue mask mandates. Instead, her motion called on the city’s top doctor to carefully examine the numbers and come to the best possible conclusion.

“I would like to ask you to explore all avenues towards this re-issuance and to consider the significance of this new experience for thousands and thousands of parents in Toronto,” Mulligan said during the meeting, which was her last one as a board member.

“It’s something that’s causing a lot of concern and could be mitigated through a simple mask mandate.”

Board member Ida Li Preti, a Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) trustee, said she wouldn’t be supporting Mulligan’s motion as parents in her board are strongly against a mask mandate. Li Preti noted that the TCDSB strongly encourages masking.

De Villa, meanwhile, said at this point the city is continuing to follow the province’s guidance on masking, but could move in a different direction, if needed.

“At this point in time, we’re suggesting continued adherence to provincial guidance, but as we have seen over the course of these past several years this virus has thrown some curveballs our way and we have to be prepared to respond in accordance with that,” she said.

Mask mandates in schools were dropped in Toronto last March.

At this point, the Ontario Ministry of Health is not committing to re-introducing mask mandates.

“COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters, as well as getting your annual flu shot remain the best tool to keep people healthy and out of hospitals,” spokesperson Alexandra Adamo wrote in a statement provided to CTV News Toronto late this afternoon.

“The bivalent vaccine, along with continued access to testing, antivirals and updated public health guidance, gives Ontarians the tools they need to make the best decisions for themselves on how to stay safe and healthy.”

Adamo went on to say that the ministry, along with the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, “continue to work with public health units during respiratory illness season and monitor impacts on the health system.”

“At the same time, we are investing in health care staffing, and building capacity in healthcare to ensure Ontario patients receive the care they need,” she said.

Today, Ontario School Safety (OSS), a group of parents dedicated to ensuring safe, in-person schooling, launched a Go Fund Me campaign to raise the necessary funds for a court challenge with the aim of securing evidence-based COVID-19 protections in Ontario schools.

Among other things, they want a return to masking and other protections “that served to protect children at other times during the pandemic.”

Pointing to pediatric hospitals in Ontario in crisis due to a surge of children with respiratory infections, emergency departments in rural areas closing due to critical staffing shortages, and a shortage of children’s pain medications, OSS said it “agrees with medical experts that now is the time to return to the same effective protections that will protect our children in the classroom.”

“By minimizing infections in schools, we can reduce interruptions to in-person learning, and address the capacity problems in hospitals, including pediatric hospitals, immediately,” the group said.

Just last Friday, Dr. Fahad Razak, the former head of the Ontario Science Table, spoke with CP24 about why he is calling for mask mandates to be reinstated.

“Personally, I would say that the criteria to require something like a mask mandate is clearly here,” said Razak, an internist at St. Michael’s Hospital, pointing to the many ERs across the province that are reporting high patient volumes and long wait times, especially at children’s hospitals.

“For anyone who says, ‘Let’s not do that,’ I would ask, ‘What is the alternative at this point? How do we keep the system that has so little capacity, how do we get it to continue to run over the winter?”

Last month, Ontario’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore also warned of more masking recommendations to the public due to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases.

“We will be making more recommendations of wearing masks to cut down the risk of all these viruses that are transmitted through personal contact,” he said.

“(It) could be a quite complex and difficult winter.”

At this point, Moore said he recommends anyone at risk of contracting COVID-19 “continue to mask as you’re going indoors in at-risk public settings.”

“We will make recommendations to the public to mask up as we get further along,” he said on Oct. 13.

While there are few locations where masks are still mandatory in the province, health officials have been advising people to mask up in higher-risk areas like public transit, especially if they are vulnerable to infection or are immunocompromised.

Today, the University of Waterloo announced it is bringing back its masking mandate in indoor instructional areas.

Seneca of Applied Arts and Technology, which has campuses in the GTA and Peterborough, and OCAD have always kept their masking requirements in classrooms.

With files from Joshua Freeman and The Canadian Press.


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