An emergency meeting of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board to decide whether to require students and staff to wear masks is set for Tuesday.
Lindy Samson, the chief of staff at CHEO, will brief trustees at the 6:30 p.m. meeting and Ottawa’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Vera Etches, will make a written submission, according to the agenda.
Both doctors have strongly urged Ottawans to wear masks indoors in public spaces to reduce the spread of a “triple threat” of viruses — RSV, flu and COVID-19 — responsible for sending a surge of children to hospital.
CHEO reports record numbers of children in its emergency department and ICU beds, and has been forced to postpone or cancel surgeries.
Most of those in ICU are young children and babies.
The motion to be debated at the Ottawa-Carleton board would require staff and students to wear surgical or N95 masks in all board buildings and during board-led activities except for musical/performing arts instruction or sports during which masks can’t be worn.
It was proposed by newly elected trustee Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth, a family doctor who has championed pandemic public-health protections.
Her motion said the board has a responsibility to “take steps to reduce health and safety risks to all educators and students” and cites the crisis in local hospitals caring for children with respiratory viruses.
At a media conference Friday morning to discuss the situation at CHEO, chief of staff Samson said masking up at schools would help stop the spread of viruses.
She did not speak to whether masks should be required at school, but said it was “time for everyone to do what we know works” to keep kids healthy and ensure those who become sick get hospital care when they need it.
“We know that masks work. And they are one part of a layer of strategies that have served us well over the last two and a half years.
“The best approach to stop the most infections from spreading would of course be if everyone, the whole community, put their masks back on indoors…
“Each little bit helps. If every child in a classroom and their teacher all are wearing masks, then the amount of spread in that setting will be decreased and will take away from the big whole.”
Samson also said people should stay home when sick, wash their hands and get their flu and COVID-19 vaccines.
The provincial Education Ministry has not required masks to be worn in schools, and there is controversy over local boards imposing their own mandates.
Ottawa’s other three school boards have posted messages urging students and staff to wear masks but noting that it remains a personal choice.
Etches has declined to use her powers to order masks in schools or other places, saying province-wide rules are preferable. At the same time. Ottawa Public Health has said it would “strongly support” organizations or businesses that bring in their own masking rules.
Earlier this week, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, strongly recommended people wear masks in indoor public spaces and said he might consider a mandate if the situation at hospitals worsens.
If the motion before the Ottawa-Carleton board passes as proposed, masks would be required starting Nov. 23.
The motion says students and staff with written medical exemptions from their physician “on the basis of a documented disability” would not be required to wear masks.
The mask mandate would be enforced in the same way that other rules on health and safety and codes of conduct are enforced, the motion said.
The Ottawa-Carleton board defied the Education Ministry last April and passed a motion requiring masks when a new wave of COVID-19 hit the province.
At the time, Education Minister Stephen Lecce had announced that students would have the choice of whether to wear a mask.
Some trustees and the board director raised concerns about how a board mask rule could be enforced.
Last spring, the board said no students would be suspended or expelled for refusing to wear a mask.
Parents were allowed to ask for a mask exemption for their child based on medical or developmental reasons or on human rights code grounds that prohibits discrimination based on religion or mental health status, among other things.
The motion to be debated Tuesday specifies how long masks would be required: until Ottawa Public Health declares the influenza season has ended; the CHEO pediatric ICU occupancy is less than 85 per cent for at least two weeks; and Ottawa Public Health no longer advises the public to wear a mask in indoor spaces to protect against respiratory and airborne viruses.
Samson said Friday that the CHEO intensive care unit is now at 200 per cent capacity.
People can make a delegation at Tuesday’s meeting either in person or virtually on Zoom by completing a registration form by Nov. 21 at noon.
Each delegation will have two minutes to speak, with an equal number of those opposed and supporting the motion.
“Recognizing that there may be a large number of attendees at the meeting, there will be security present to assist with managing the crowd,” a statement from the board said.
The board will accept an unlimited number of written delegations.