Before the first of two Nov. 22 Ottawa Carleton District School Board meetings special meetings regarding a motion to mandate mask wearing by students, Barrhaven-Knoxdale-Merivale Trustee Donna Blackburn warned that the topic was divisive. She told City News that the motion “was not a good look for the board,” and that the motion put forward by rookie trustee Dr. Niki Kaplan-Myrth was “just political grandstanding.”
While Kaplan-Myrth’s motion failed in a 6-6 tie vote, the issue was a political lightning rod in a meeting which extended over two evenings. Trustees who voted in favour of the mandate were Alysha Aziz, Justine Bell, Cathryne Milburn, Amanda Presley, Lyra Evans, and Kaplan-Myrth. Trustees who opposed the mandate were Donna Blackburn, Donna Dickson, Jennifer Jennekens, Matthew Lee, Suzanne Nash and Lynn Scott.
Among the reasons that Blackburn opposed the mask mandate may have been the most fundamental reason. According to the Ontario Ministry of Health, the school board does not have the authority to mandate masks in schools. The directive would have to come from Ontario’s top doctor, Dr. Kieran Moore, or by Ottawa’s top doctor, Dr. Vera Etches. Moore recently strongly recommended the wearing of masks in indoor settings, but did not impose a mandate.
In an interview before the meeting, Blackburn said that the meeting “was going to get a lot of people upset for no reason.” Blackburn added that the board could give a strong recommendation to wear masks, which the province is recommending, without the disruption and upset of a divisive public meeting.
During the first evening of the meeting, OCDSB Chair Lyra Evans had to repeatedly ask members in the audience to stop yelling and cheering. She eventually had to have some disrupters removed from the meeting by security. At the end of the meeting, Ottawa Police had to clear the room.
In an interview with CBC, Evans said she had legal opinions that disputed the province’s authority and that the board does have the legal authority to implement a mask mandate.
The meeting had presentations from six different parties – three in favour of the mandate and three opposed. The speakers from both sides made concise and clear points. Those opposing the masks were concerned for the mental health of the students, while those in favour of the masks were concerned for their physical health.
Students Don’t Want Masks
The first to speak was Wade Shanley, a father of three children in the board. Shanley referenced a Nov. 15 interview on the Rob Snow Show in which a trustee stated that it was not a debate, as the motion already had enough support to pass and that the mandate would happen. Shanley said he hoped this was not true and asked that the trustees be open minded and listen to their constituents.
“It’s quite clear that your constituents, in the polling, have shown that they do not support this,” he said. “Less than 10 per cent of students are wearing masks. That is parents and students telling you they do not support mandatory masking.”
Shanley added that it is not the board’s jurisdiction to make health policies in place of Dr. Moore and Dr. Etches.
Another father, Blake Maguire, echoed Shanley’s comments.
“I’d like to remind you all that you are elected officials by the people right here,” Maguire told the trustees, pointing at the gallery filled with parents mostly opposed to the mandate. “Their voice is being heard right now, and they’re saying ‘no’ to masks. That’s the strongest message you can hear right now. It’s a democracy.”
Maguire told trustees that he noticed anxiety, depression, and lower marks in all four of his children.
“They aren’t good for kids,” he said. “They’re going to harm kids. I’m literally begging not to do this. You think you’re doing the right thing but you’re not. They make kids afraid of each other.”
Lawyer and parent Adam Saunders stated that there is an urgent need for a mask mandate in schools because of the lack of safe air in schools. He also discussed the longterm impacts of COVID. Saunders spoke about the need for air purification and filtration systems in schools, but noted that this was not a reasonable, overnight fix.
CHEO Struggling With RSV Cases
Dr. Lindy Samson, Chief of Staff and Chief Medical Officer at CHEO, made a thorough presentation on what CHEO has seen and about viral transmission.
“We believe that keeping kids in school is imperative to their health and well-being,” she said.
Samson said that the wait time in the emergency department reached 13 hours Nov. 21. CHEO’s pediatric ICU was at 200 per cent capacity.
“What we’re seeing in Ottawa right now is a unique surge in kids with viral respiratory infections,” she said. “These are mainly RSV, influenza and COVID, but also include others. They are all here and spreading amongst our kids at the same time.”
Samson said that there are three things different during this viral trifecta. The first is that this has already been going on for a month, and that modelling suggests it will go on for four to six more weeks. The second is that there are more children than ever before who are sicker and are coming to CHEO for care and are required to be admitted into hospital. The third is that every children’s hospital in Canada is experiencing the same surge, at the same time.
“Never in the 25 years that I’ve been at CHEO have so many patients required intensive care for viral-related breathing difficulties,” Samson said.
Samson’s presentation was not subject to the two-minute limit. Evans had to interrupt Dr. Samson’s presentation several times to warn spectators not to heckle or interrupt.
Samson said the recommendation that children wear masks at school and in crowded places “is not intended to be political or polarizing. It’s about what we can all do as a community to help each other and help our kids.”
The meeting continued Nov. 24, and continued virtually to avoid disruptions from the audience.
Aside from the points made by the trustees, most of the meeting was spent going over the syntax of the mandate, with words and phrases being added, subtracted and reworded.
While trustees, parents and experts were divided, the board’s two student trustees were not. While their votes do not officially count, both Tabarak Al-Dalaimi and Antong Hou were firmly opposed to the mask mandate. Hou presented results from a survey that noted 70 per cent of students were against mask mandates.
Al-Dalaimi called the mandate a strong recommendation that will cause confusion and conflict. She said that the motion was vague and misleading.
“Should this motion be passed, we would be telling students and staff that they are required ted to wear a mask, but have the option to opt out of it,” she said. “We would also be telling staff that they would be required to ensure that their students are wearing masks, but they don’t have the right to take any action to enforce this.”
Hou said the student senate was against the mask mandate, and added the every survey taken showed that students across the board strongly opposed the mask mandate.
“It’s clear that a majority of students are against the motion,” he said. “A commonly cited reason is the divide caused by a weak mandate.
“This motion has divided our board, it has divided our community, and it will divide our students. As the motion sits, when students go to class, not all will have masks on. During lunch, an entire grade will sit unmasked in the cafeteria. Before and after school, students will sit maskless on the bus. During school sports and other activities, masks will be off. It begs the question if this mandate will give students a false sense of security. Because a mandate with a myriad of exceptions is hardly a mandate.”