Amid calls to mandate masks in schools again, provincial health officials demur

Edmonton parent Kimberley McMann is worried about sending her kids to school amid a surge of illnesses — but also about further disruptions to learning and socialization after the past few years of the pandemic.  (Jamie McCannel/CBC - image credit)
Edmonton parent Kimberley McMann is worried about sending her kids to school amid a surge of illnesses — but also about further disruptions to learning and socialization after the past few years of the pandemic. (Jamie McCannel/CBC - image credit)

Over the past few weeks, every morning has felt like "a gamble" to parent Kimberley McMann as she prepared her two kids for school.

With many of their classmates away ill — their Edmonton school board had more than 20,000 students absent at one point last week — McMann worries about the health of eight-year-old James and four-year-old Gemma. Yet she also doesn't want to disrupt their in-person learning, nor the socialization they're getting after the past two pandemic years.

A triple threat of COVID-19 cases, a resurgence of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and earlier start to influenza season in multiple regions has pushed pediatric hospitals across the country significantly over capacity and is being blamed for a wave of absences in schools. It's also playing out against a backdrop of ongoing shortages of children's pain medication.

The situation has prompted many to question whether there is cause to reintroduce mandatory masking in Canadian classrooms — a pandemic measure that provinces and territories dropped in the first half of 2022.

School boards are looking to provincial health leaders, who aren't moving to reinstate mandates just yet.

"No one really loves wearing masks, but what is more disruptive is the idea of school going online," said McMann.

McMann said that the parents she's spoken with "would definitely prefer to go back to mandated masks versus … the trouble we're in now and potentially having to shift to online."

"It is part of [school officials'] job to make sure that their students and staff are as safe as possible — and this is a tool we can use," she said.

Jamie McCannel/CBC
Jamie McCannel/CBC

What school boards are saying

Trustees at different school divisions have been raising the issue in meetings this week. In the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, there's been a call for an emergency meeting to discuss and vote on bringing back a mask mandate.

Meanwhile, Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) trustees are urging Alberta's chief medical officer of health to set clear thresholds for bringing back additional measures, such as mandatory isolation and masking, to schools experiencing outbreaks. Last week, more than three-quarters of Edmonton public schools counted student absences due to illness at 10 per cent or greater — Alberta Health Services's benchmark for outbreak status.

"It's not just COVID. We're dealing with the flu, which is something new in the mix, well as RSV, according to medical experts. So we really do require the [chief medical officer's] guidance on what is reasonable for us to … mandate in our schools," EPSB superintendent Darrel Robertson said during a special board meeting on Tuesday.

"This issue is so divisive in the community that it makes it, practically speaking, a challenge for schools to enforce in the absence of health orders and what the chief medical officer is saying is required in schools."

To make masking mandatory again, direction must indeed come from a local public health unit or from provincial health officials, echoed Ryan Bird, spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), which is the country's largest school division.

"Some people would like us to require them at schools and, quite frankly, it's not enforceable … without that backing of a public health unit [or] the government of Ontario … to give it teeth," he said.

"To have an isolated mandate at one school board, for example, is just not enforceable, because it puts our staff in a very difficult position … trying to police masks for the entire school day."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith called masking "a personal choice" and reiterated on Monday that her government would not reintroduce mask mandates in schools.

"Health decisions are the purview of the health minister, with advice from who he needs to seek advice from," Smith said. "We retain the full authority to be offering that advice at the provincial level."

What medical officers of health are saying

Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, strongly recommended on Monday that people don masks in indoor public settings — including schools and in child-care facilities — given the extraordinary current pressures on the province's pediatric health-care system.

He stopped short of introducing a mask mandate, but urged the public to get flu and COVID-19 vaccinations, screen daily for symptoms of illness and stay home when sick.

His provincial peers shared similar messaging this week.

"We're starting to see high absenteeism in schools … I'd be more concerned if there's lots of viruses going around and there's low absenteeism, because that means kids are going to school sick," said Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical officer of health.

While schools must be "mask-friendly" places, Shahab said, mandating them at this point may not be helpful or feasible, given the socializing students and families have returned to.

"All the things we mentioned before — staying home if you're sick, getting your flu shot, getting your COVID vaccine, wearing a mask if you have underlying risk factors — are important," he said.

With Newfoundland and Labrador thus far not seeing the same increases in respiratory illness as other jurisdictions, "at this point, I don't think we have the evidence to support bringing in a mandate for masking," said that province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald.

Earlier pandemic measures, such as mask mandates, were introduced while the province was under a public health emergency, she pointed out.

"'How long do you leave that mandate in place?' becomes the question," Fitzgerald explained.

"[If] we get to a point where we really need to make that recommendation with regard to schools, then we've always followed the evidence previously and will continue to do so."

In Ontario, local public health offices have largely deferred to the province's decision.

"Toronto Public Health continues to work with the provincial government on public health policy matters, including masking guidance, recommendations and mandates," the agency told CBC News in a statement, adding it continues to support schools to implement direction from the province.

"We continue to strongly recommend all residents to wear a well-fitting, high-quality mask in indoor spaces, particularly those with low ventilation, including in schools and child-care settings, in addition to receiving a bivalent COVID-19 booster and flu shot, if eligible."

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The sizable number of kids sick and out of school in recent weeks is "worrisome," Dr. James Talbot, Alberta's chief medical officer of health from 2012 to 2015, told CBC News Network.

"Those are numbers I've never seen in my career."

While Talbot reiterated that people should get up-to-date with influenza and COVID vaccines, as well as stay home when ill (advice for both sick kids and sick parents, he emphasized), he also feels bringing masks back to classrooms should be considered.

"You need to look seriously about masking as an occupational health issue — to protect teachers and volunteers and teachers aides, anybody who works in the school — and masking for the kids," said Talbot, now a public health professor at the University of Alberta.

"I think parents have a role to play in reinforcing that message as well."