Masks will not be mandatory in Ontario schools this September, the province's Education Ministry says.
In an email to CBC Toronto on Monday, the ministry said most health and safety requirements for the upcoming school year will remain unchanged from the end of the 2021-22 school year, which includes the voluntary use of masks.
"The government will continue to provide free high-quality masks for students and N95s for staff, if they choose to use them, all which remains unchanged from the 2021-22 school year," reads the email.
"School boards will continue to have access to rapid antigen tests to be used in accordance with provincial testing guidance."
The ministry adds that leading medical experts, including the Children's Health Coalition and medical officers of health, were consulted in this year's health and safety plan.
The news comes days after the province's chief medical officer of health said the seventh wave of COVID-19 in Ontario has peaked.
However, when the mask mandate was lifted in schools last year, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario called the move "premature" and said it would put students at risk of having in-person learning disrupted once again.
Late last month, Education Minister Stephen Lecce committed to keeping Ontario's two million students in class for in-person learning this school year.
"We have taken action by deploying over 100,000 standalone HEPA filter units to classrooms and learning spaces, enhanced cleaning, and continued access to rapid antigen tests," Lecce said in a statement.
"Our government remains focused on providing students with a positive, safe, and normal school experience."
'Our head in the sand': expert
Since Ontario dropped widespread COVID-19 testing in December, medical experts say it's hard to know the true number of COVID-19 cases in the community.
"We're basically with our head in the sand, you know, because we're not testing for it," says pediatric infectious diseases specialist Dr. Anna Banerji.
With this in mind, Banerji says masks are the smartest thing to implement to keep kids safe — especially since many kids in Ontario aren't yet vaccinated against COVID-19.
"Using masks, I think, is an easy thing to do for most people, to give them additional protection," Banerji told CBC Toronto.
"Looking at what's going to happen in the fall, where we already had a seventh wave and probably we're going to have an eighth wave ... I think it's a smart thing to do."
Banerji says while the summer months get everyone's guard down, parents should know kids are still at risk of getting COVID-19, particularly when they return to classrooms.
"We know more kids are getting long-COVID, kids are getting the inflammatory syndromes, and so get your kids vaccinated."
Not a surprise to school board, union
Robin Pilkey, Parkdale High Park school trustee for the Toronto District School Board, says she wasn't surprised by the news.
"There is actually no difference between when people left in June, to what's going to happen in September," said Pilkey.
Pilkey says until last spring, school boards had the ability to mandate masks for all staff and students, even if the province only specified mandatory masks for certain grades or ages. But since mask mandates were lifted last spring, she says current legislation removed that option.
"We can't suddenly go, 'Oh, we want everyone to wear a mask' because under the legislation, we can't do that," Pilkey told CBC Toronto.
Pilkey says schools are continuing to follow all mandates under provincial guidelines, including ventilation requirements, to keep schools safe. She notes anyone is welcome to wear a mask if needed.
"In circumstances when people felt like they couldn't come back to school, online schooling exists. We're doing what we can with that."
Karen Littlewood, the president for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, also says she wasn't surprised by the news. Despite this, she says the union has a lot of concerns headed into fall, including COVID-19 vaccination rates, a resurgence in cases, distancing in classrooms, proper ventilation, the disruption to in-person learning, and even emerging monkeypox cases.
"We need to make sure that people are informed and that they have all the protections that they need," said Littlewood.
Littlewood says moving forward, the union will continue to consult with medical experts to make sure schools stay safe.
"I think we find ourselves in a spot in the middle where people are going to decide, and hopefully nobody will be shamed or embarrassed because they choose to wear a mask," said Littlewood.
"But the more people who wear masks, the more people are vaccinated, the better protected everyone's going to be."