Ottawa's largest school board postpones mask mandate decision after heated meeting

Ottawa's largest school board was forced to postpone making a decision about whether students and teachers will need to wear masks in schools after a heated debate.

The Ottawa Carleton District School Board's special meeting Tuesday night became chaotic after disruptions from people who showed up to oppose a motion calling for the board to reinstate a mask mandate.

Lyra Evans, the board chair, said the school board wanted to hear community feedback and was willing to make amendments to the motion, but it lost more than an hour of meeting time because of the disruptions.

"We should not (be stopped from) making a decision because a vocal minority group want to yell, as opposed to making a decision based on the best information available," said Evans.

Police were called to remove rowdy individuals after security made fruitless attempts to ask people to leave. In videos posted online, people opposed to wearing masks can be heard singing, chanting and yelling over school board trustees.

One parent took to the podium during the meeting and said masks were harming his kids. Some argued the low number of children wearing masks in schools this fall is proof that parents don't want a change in policy.

"We can't have a discussion on how best to serve students if you don't believe that masks work," said Evans.

Only about 10 to 15 per cent of students and staff across the 143 schools are regularly wearing masks, the board said.

Katie Gibbs's six-year-old son is one of them. She tuned in to Tuesday's meeting virtually to see what the board decided, and said she was surprised by what she saw instead.

"It just felt really worrying to me that a small group was able to interfere with the work of a democratically elected school board," said Gibbs.

Last spring, the school board decided to reinstate mask mandates and said that 80 per cent of staff and students wore them. Evans said if the board decides to not enforce masking, it’s a position trustees will have to defend.

A rise in COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus and influenza cases this fall has strained capacity at children’s hospitals across the province. Ontario’s chief medical officer, Dr. Kieran Moore, has strongly encouraged masking but the province has not made it mandatory.

Meanwhile, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos was at an Ottawa Public Health vaccination clinic Wednesday to urge parents and guardians to vaccinate their children against COVID-19.

"Vaccination is something that leads to huge difference," said Duclos. "Our children are suffering from all sorts of respiratory viruses and pediatric hospitals are overwhelmed."

While 80 per cent of Canadian kids between 12 and 17 have had two COVID-19 vaccines, only 17 per cent got a booster shot. The numbers decrease in the younger age groups, with only 41 per cent of kids between five and 11 considered fully vaccinated.

Less than five per cent of the younger group of kids has a booster shot.

Ottawa's medical officer of health, Vera Etches, told reporters at the press conference that it will be up to the province to make a decision about widespread mask mandates.

"My strong recommendation is that everywhere in Ottawa, when you're in an indoor space, that is the time to be wearing masks."

The Ottawa Carleton District School Board has not set a new date to continue the debate.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Cindy Tran, The Canadian Press