Approximately 3,800 students are exempt from wearing masks or face coverings in schools within the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB).
Nearly 39,850 students in Hamilton’s public board are enrolled for in-person learning this semester, meaning that just under 10 per cent of students aren’t required to wear masks.
Shawn McKillop, HWDSB spokesperson, confirmed the numbers to The Spectator on Wednesday.
In general, all students are required to wear masks or face coverings in Hamilton’s schools. In August, the Ontario government instructed school boards across the province to make masks mandatory for students in Grades 4 to 12.
Hamilton’s boards expanded the requirement to all students after teachers and parents raised concerns over the spread of COVID-19 in younger classes.
But many parents have also asked that their child be exempt from wearing a mask.
Jeff Sorensen, president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers’ Local union, said he was concerned about parents asking their child to be exempt from mask-wearing without any valid medical reason.
“We have no idea, of the 3,800 students who are exempt from wearing masks, how many have actual medical problems that require they not wear masks,” Sorensen said.
“It’s pretty easy to get an exemption for your child. We understand there are students and adults who have good medical reasons for not wearing a mask, but the difficulty is that we have no way of knowing if all 3,800 of these students do.”
The HWDSB has said that they were advised by public health not to overwhelm local clinics and doctors with requests for mask exemptions.
Sorensen said his members are concerned that a growing population of students with mask exemptions could heighten health risks for teachers.
“Premier Doug Ford has said that because of our rising case numbers, we have to get back into groups of 10 in our homes. We’ve also been told that if you can’t maintain two metres of distance, you have to wear a mask out in the community. But that doesn’t exist in our schools. It feels, sometimes, like our schools are the least safe places in the province. Now people can effectively opt out of wearing a mask in these spaces.”
Mandatory mask-wearing became a point of contention for parents and staff early in August, with some seeing the requirement as a potential solution to situations where students cannot maintain physical distance and others seeing it as an unnecessary inconvenience for young students who may not be as susceptible to the virus.
Research has varied on the question of health risks for young children. Some evidence shows that children generally appear less likely to spread the virus and don’t appear to get sick or experience symptoms as often as adults.
A recent study from South Korea, however, suggested that kids aged 10 and up may spread the virus more easily to family members than younger kids, and might even spread it as easily as adults.
The debate has come up repeatedly during board meetings at the HWDSB. In August, trustees unanimously passed a motion requiring that all students, regardless of grade, wear masks. The masks were later made mandatory on school buses as well.
“These are little ones and their lives are just as precious as everyone else,” said Carole Paikin Miller, trustee for Ward 5, at an earlier board meeting.
“I think we should make sure they’re safe.”
Jacob Lorinc, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator