Masks will no longer be required to be worn inside K-12 schools in Newfoundland and Labrador starting May 24.
In a briefing Friday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said that while Public Health still recommends mask-wearing, they will now be a personal choice for students, staff and families.
"We are seeing reduced COVID-19 activity in the province. Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 severity have decreased significantly in recent weeks, which is one of the most important indicators at this time," said Fitzgerald.
"While the virus persists, the level of community transmission is lower than we have seen in recent months."
Fitzgerald said people inside schools should assess their risk before deciding to ditch their masks. Vaccination status, a COVID-19 infection within the last three months, susceptibility to serious sickness, crowd sizes and having close contacts who are high risk are all factors to consider when deciding whether to wear a mask, said Fitzgerald.
"Regardless of your choice, or anyone's choice to wear a mask or not, we ask that students and staff be kind to one another and respect each other's choices," she said.
Leading up to the Easter break, Public Health kept masking guidelines in place while dropping the mandate in other public spaces across the province on March 14.
At the time, Fitzgerald said Public Health would revisit masking guidelines in schools after the break, but when the time came the requirements were kept in place for all K-12 schools.
Health and government officials have continuously said they still recommend wearing masks while in public to slow the spread of COVID-19. Fitzgerald said that recommendation has not changed.
Watch the full May 13 update:
Fitzgerald said the mandate is being dropped — instead of being kept in place to finish out the school year — because the province is faring well with COVID-19 and because there's high immunity in school communities.
"We in Public Health would not be doing this if we felt that there was a significant increased risk for transmission. As we've done, throughout Omicron in particular when we've loosened restrictions, there may be a little bump," she said.
"That's not unexpected. But we don't anticipate there's going to be a huge increase in transmission with this," she said.
'Really disheartened,' parent says
The decision to make masks optional doesn't sit well with Kelly Budgell of Bay Roberts, who has children in Grade 5 and Grade 11.
Budgell chose to drop out of university three courses away from a degree in sociology to home-school her daughter because of COVID concerns, and is planning to keep her son home during the final weeks of the school year. She hopes he'll be able to get the credit he needs for graduation next year.
"I was really disheartened. Disappointed. This was the last and only protection that was in place. And now it's being taken away," Budgell told CBC News Friday. "The masking was the easiest thing to keep in place, so it's pretty frustrating."
Although Fitzgerald said the prevalence of COVID-19 has lowered in recent weeks, Budgell says that's tough to take at face value because of limited PCR testing and information shared on the government's COVID-19 portal.
"You need everyone in masks. Having one person masked, that doesn't protect anybody. So it's just not safe, and there's no way I can feel comfortable sending my kids into an unsafe environment. It doesn't make sense," she said.
Reduce class sizes, improve ventilation: NLTA, NDP
In an emailed statement, the NLTA said Friday's announcement was not a surprise.
"Enforcement of required student masking, while always a challenge, has become increasingly difficult for teachers and school administrators," reads the statement.
The association said it continues to advocate for enhanced measures to improve school safety.
"Our schools remain the largest daily indoor gatherings where physical distancing is not possible, the places where all of our homes, workplaces and community contacts come together," reads the statement.
"Reducing class sizes and improving school ventilation and air quality are issues that need to be on the front burner moving forward."
The provincial New Democratic Party also says the provincial government needs to improve ventilation in schools.
"If there is anything the pandemic taught us, it is the importance of adequate ventilation and physical distancing in keeping students safe," said interim Leader Jim Dinn in a media release shortly after Friday's briefing.
"There are still schools that do not have mechanical ventilation or HVAC systems, and classrooms are still crowded. As measures are relaxed, I fear the need for upgrading and installing ventilation systems will cease to be a priority for government."
Mask mandate remains in court
Meanwhile, masks will continue to be mandatory in Newfoundland and Labrador provincial court.
March and April saw record hospitalizations and deaths from the highly contagious virus.
In a media release, the provincial court said everyone attending court must continue to wear a mask at all times, except for children under five years old or those who are unable to wear one because of a medical condition.
Disposable masks will be provided for those who attend court without one and presiding judges, at their discretion, may permit the removal of masks when seated inside the courtroom.
Fitzgerald said masks will also remain mandatory in all health-care facilities.
On Friday the province reported two more hospitalizations since Wednesday's update, raising the current total to eight with one person in critical care. No deaths have been reported since Wednesday.
There are also 108 new cases being reported: 53 on Thursday and 55 on Friday. However, the numbers don't necessarily represent the true spread of COVID-19 in the province since the Department of Health restricted testing and is no longer releasing the data on how many people are being tested.
The province is also scaling back on reporting COVID-19 data. Fitzgerald said the COVID-19 website will now be updated only on Wednesdays.