These Ontario parents want province to make masks mandatory in classrooms again

Heather Hanwell, left, and Kate Laing are parents and part of the group Ontario School Safety. They're both calling on the province to bring back masking, as well as other measures, to Ontario's schools to curb the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses. (Photo of Hanwell by ten2tenphotography.com/Photo submitted by Kate Laing - image credit)
Heather Hanwell, left, and Kate Laing are parents and part of the group Ontario School Safety. They're both calling on the province to bring back masking, as well as other measures, to Ontario's schools to curb the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses. (Photo of Hanwell by ten2tenphotography.com/Photo submitted by Kate Laing - image credit)

Heather Hanwell wants to see a mask mandate reinstated in Ontario schools and she knows that's not a popular opinion.

But the mother from York Region says she doesn't believe air filtration and ventilation in classrooms have gone far enough to keep students and staff safe.

"This is absolutely not a popular stance and the thing is, it's not about a popularity contest," Hanwell told Rebecca Zandbergen, host of CBC Radio's London Morning.

"Politicians right now are the ones that are making these decisions and they are the ones that are concerned about popularity, not about public health."

Hanwell and other parents have formed the group Ontario School Safety, which has about 20 dedicated volunteers but more than 400 people who have supported the cause through financial donations. She says they're considering legal action against the province to see masks return to schools. They'd also like to see other measures return, like better access to rapid test kits and reporting on cases in schools.

WATCH | Respiratory illness surge revives debate over masking indoors:

This comes as Critical Care Services Ontario reported 122 children were in in pediatric ICUs across the province. Ontario has a total of 112 intensive care beds for children.

Dr. Lennox Huang, an intensive care physician and the chief medical officer at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, told CBC Toronto hospitals have reached "a point of crisis for pediatric care across the province."

"All of our predictions ... would indicate that things are going to get worse before they're better," Huang said.

Hanwell says the group understands there are many people who are angry and parents want their children to have a "normal" school year. She says that's what her group wants, too.

"We get it, we understand why maybe you've stopped masking, we understand the pressures to want to get back to what we call normal," she said. "We want Ontario open for business, open for learning."

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

Hanwell said with layered protections such as masking, ventilation and hand washing, "that we can keep things open, that we can continue with our activities and keep our kids in their sports and their clubs and keep them in school where they need to be. Everyone agrees — kids are best in school."

Masks a layer of protection,  mom says

Kate Laing is a mother in Waterloo region and has heard people argue that she can just send her own children to school with masks. She did that and she says her son came home with COVID-19 within days of starting school in September.

"Vaccines are part of it, but they're not a silver bullet. Masking is one of those layers that we know really decreases the spread of airborne viruses," Laing told Craig Norris, host of CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition.

"We saw it with the decrease in flu last year — it was virtually non-existent because we were masking. And now that we're not masking flu, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and COVID are now all on the rise and it's causing this pediatric healthcare crisis that we're in right now," she said.

Premier, chief medical officer promote vaccine

Earlier this week at a news conference, Premier Doug Ford was asked if his government would bring back mask mandates, particularly in schools. Ford said he'd follow the advice of Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore.

"I'd wear a mask when you can if you're within risk and get your flu shot, get a vax shot, too," Ford said.

CBC News asked Moore whether he is considering reintroducing masks in schools to the curb the spread of COVID-19, RSV and other respiratory viruses. In an emailed statement, he instead encouraged people to get their COVID-19 vaccines and boosters and the annual flu shot as they "remain the best tool to keep people healthy and out of hospitals."

"The bivalent vaccine, along with continued access to testing, antivirals and updated public health guidance, give Ontarians the tools they need to make the best decisions for themselves on how to stay safe and healthy," the emailed statement said.

"The ministry, including the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, continues to work with public health units during respiratory illness season and monitor impacts on the health system. At the same time, we are investing in health-care staffing and building capacity in health care to ensure Ontario patients receive the care they need."

Legal action being considered

Hanwell and Laing say the group of parents they're speaking for don't think those statements go far enough.

The Ontario School Safety group is considering what legal options exist to force the province to implement measures like masking to curb the spread of respiratory viruses this school year.

"Most of us have written letters, signed petitions, had meetings with people from teachers, administrators at schools, school boards are members of provincial parliament, calling and writing the premier," Hanwell said.

"So we're looking at legal action because this might be the thing that actually can force them to carry out their duty to create safe enough schools."

Laing says the group also wants to hear from more parents about their experiences.

"We're ready to go the distance. We just need to make sure that we're educating parents … and teachers about why this is a big deal," she said.