The mask mandate in Ontario schools will end on March 21 and the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) would have preferred more time.
“We had hoped perhaps it would have been in a couple of weeks later,” Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Colin Lee told Barrie 360 on Friday. “We still highly encourage students and staff to mask, respecting the fact there are students and staff who will choose not to mask for a variety of reasons from teaching to learning styles that perhaps may benefit from not masking or just being uncomfortable.”
At a health-care announcement in Barrie on Friday afternoon, Premier Doug Ford told school boards to stick to the province’s decision to drop mandatory masks because “they aren’t medical experts.”
Ford said the chief medical officer of health is the expert, and he expects school boards to follow his direction, “plain and simple.”
Some boards, including the public and catholic boards in Toronto, have voted to seek permission from the government to extend mandates in their schools, and in Hamilton, the public board voted Thursday night to defy the province and keep students and staff masked until Apr. 15.
A statement on Friday from Education Minister Stephen Lecce also suggests those extension requests won’t be entertained, saying school boards are expected to implement what he called a cautious plan.
In a letter to families on Thursday, the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) said it had consulted with the SMDHU regarding directives from the Ministry of Education.
While students and staff will no longer be required to wear masks in schools, the board said masks will remain available to students and staff who choose to wear them.
The Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board posted a message on Friday afternoon that in most cases, masking will be voluntary for staff and students in schools and on school buses. But the board indicated masks will be provided to students who wish to wear them.
“Certainly, from our perspective, we are going to encourage people to continue to mask indoors after March 21 because there is still quite a bit of COVID right now and in 10 days’ time it is likely not going to change significantly,” said Lee.
The SMDHU will be following and monitoring the COVID situation.
“Whether it is hospitalizations, and if they do surge in the future, as opposed to a downward trend, we would consider mandating additional public health measures, and that would include masking,” said Lee.
With files from The Canadian Press