This story was updated at 11 a.m. to reflect new information.
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has announced it will be removing COVID-19 measures in schools, in keeping with the Ontario government’s decision to lift public health mandates later this month.
The removals include mask requirements and proof of vaccination policies, according to the TDSB, which is planning to write to public officials asking for more time to implement the changes.
The school board’s operational guidelines will be updated “as soon as possible” to align with the Ministry of Education, said Craig Snider, the board’s executive officer of finance, at a special board meeting on Thursday night.
Among the changes announced by Snider is an end to physical distancing and cohorting in schools. Other changes announced at the meeting include allowing visitors in schools again, removing signage relating to COVID-19, removing screening stations, and resuming extra-curricular activities depending on the availability of staff volunteers.
The board announced Friday that positive case notification letters will be the only policy that will continue until at least the end of the month.
“The future is uncertain and there is clearly no consensus on next steps,” said Colleen Russell-Rawlins, TDSB’s director of education.
The Ontario government, crediting high vaccination rates, announced Wednesday that it would lift mask mandates provincewide on March 21. However, less than 30 per cent of 5- to 11-year-olds are fully vaccinated, compared with more than 91 per cent of 12- to 17-year-olds that are fully vaccinated.
The board voted to write an open letter to the Ministry of Education asking for additional time to remove mask mandates. In a statement released after the meeting, TDSB said their timeline for lifting COVID-19 measures could be adjusted should their request be approved.
Neither the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) nor the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) currently support the lifting of mask mandates in school.
“Lifting the mask mandate too soon may result in further disruption to in-person learning and negative impacts on the health and safety of members, students and their families,” said ETFO president Karen Brown in a statement.
“A more cautious and evidence-based approach is needed if we are to avoid another COVID-19 wave,” reads the OSSTF statement.
Sophia Alexanian, a high-school student who cofounded Ontario Students for COVID Safety, agrees.
“Schools are a crowded indoor gathering with inadequate class sizes and no way to social distance. Masks at least provide a barrier for everyone,” she said.
Alexanian says the mandate change is yet another indicator the government is not taking into consideration the mental well-being of students or pandemic barriers to learning.
“This individualistic decision goes against public education values like inclusion, equity and community,” said Alexanian.
Her group is planning a walkout in protest of the recently announced changes for March 21, the day the province’s mask mandate is scheduled to lift.
“Moving on from the pandemic does not mean removing safety precautions before we’re ready,” she said.