No mask mandate for Ottawa's largest school board

Ottawa's English public school board will not be mandating masks again for staff and students like these seen in February 2021. (Blair Gable/Reuters - image credit)
Ottawa's English public school board will not be mandating masks again for staff and students like these seen in February 2021. (Blair Gable/Reuters - image credit)

Trustees with Ottawa's largest school board voted to not mandate masks at its schools during a divided meeting Thursday night.

The twelve-member board voted six for and six against the motion introduced Tuesday by new trustee Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth, ultimately failing to pass it.

That motion was to require students to wear masks during all activities at Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) schools, except for music and other performing arts or sports when they can't be worn nor lunch or snack breaks.

The motion points to a recent rise in COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and struggles at area ICUs and CHEO, eastern Ontario's children's hospital in Ottawa, to keep up.

It also references strong recommendations from local public health officials and Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, to wear a mask indoors.

Trustees who voted in favour of the mandate were Alysha Aziz, Justine Bell, Cathryne Milburn, Amanda Presley, Lyra Evans, and Kaplan-Myrth.

Trustees who voted against were Donna Blackburn, Donna Dickson, Jennifer Jennekens, Matthew Lee, Suzanne Nash and Lynn Scott.

The board of trustees postponed the vote Tuesday night following a dramatic special meeting during which security and police removed some people for disruptive behaviour.

OCDSB board chair Lyra Evans repeatedly chastised parents and other members of the public for inappropriate screaming and cheering throughout the evening.

Twice, Evans called abrupt breaks during which security and police escorted people out.

Trustees divided, motion questioned

After hours of amending the motion line-by-line, it was clear trustees were divided on where they stand on the contentious motion — citing community feedback and pushback they've received from both sides of the mandatory masking issue.

An amended motion included exceptions for anyone "to whom a mask would pose a hardship," and people who fail to wear a mask wouldn't be suspended or disciplined. Educators wouldn't be expected to "take further action to enforce masking," the revisions read.

Some trustees began questioning the relevance of such a lax mandate.

"This is no longer a mandate," said trustee Lee. "[The motion] is unenforceable … and it doesn't really do anything in terms of trying to get a population-wide response."

Blackburn echoed that sentiment and urged her colleagues to vote the motion down.

"We've caused all this turmoil and upset in our community," she said, adding it's public health officials' responsibilities to mandate masks. "They are not choosing to exercise that power, and there is a reason why."

On the other side, Evans urged her colleagues to pass the motion.

"I view this motion as prudent … as reasonable compromise," she said. "This motion has the potential to do good. We heard a number of times that every little bit helps."

In her concluding remarks, Kaplan-Myrth predicted the motion would fail, but urged her colleagues to think about the city's vulnerable population.

"Sometimes it's necessary to do what's difficult," she said. "We must do what is difficult for the most vulnerable people in our community, even if we lose support of some people."

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

Student trustees against mandate

Both student trustees, whose votes don't count officially, voted against the mask mandate. They said their peers are concerned over the "very vague" wording of the mandate.

"It's simply a strong recommendation," said student Tabarak Al-Delaimi.

"Portraying this as a mandate … will cause an incredible amount of confusion and unnecessary conflict."

"After a few months of virtually no measures, the abrupt reinstatement will surely lead to tension — tension between students, those who comply and those who don't. Tension between students and staff," added student Antong Hou.