The Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) is looking to see the return of public health measures like masking in the classroom as the pandemic sees a resurgence.
The board voted in favour of sending a letter to Ontario's education minister, the chief medical officer of health and the local acting medical officer of health, calling for them to consider reinstating public health measures.
The motion didn't specify which measures in particular the board was calling for, leaving that issue in their hands.
The provincial mask mandate was lifted on March 21. In recent weeks COVID-19 has been on an upswing across the province.
"Our staff and families have felt the brunt of high absence rates, and as a result high stress, to fill those spots, catch up on missed instructional and social time, and keeping our schools open for students," GECDSB chairperson Alicia Higgison said at a board meeting on Tuesday night.
The education minister has said that the board cannot implement a return to the mask mandate, Higgison said.
The decision to send a letter passed in a 7-4 vote, with the two student trustees among those voting against it.
Student trustee Malek Mekawi said that the overwhelming majority of students do not support a mask mandate.
"The ability to choose to wear a mask or not should not be a political choice, but rather a personal one," he said prior to the debate on the motion.
"Students deserve the right to make the decision on their own, and in this time of near-constant uncertainty, enabling students to have a choice equips them to be better leaders of tomorrow."
Trustee Alan Halberstadt voted against the motion, suggesting that the masking mandate would be harmful to mental health.
"I think we have to do what's best for the children," he said.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce reacted to the school board's decision in a statement to CBC News.
"We believe that medical doctors, not school board officials or teacher unions, should make public health decisions. Every student in every school board in Ontario retains the choice to wear a mask, and that policy will be universally respected, as recommended by the Chief Medical Officer of Health," he said.
He went on to say that the province will continue to enhance ventilation, provide rapid tests and maintain enhanced cleaning to keep classrooms safe.
Government 'playing politics'
Several trustees were critical of the province for not taking action and leaving the matter with the board.
Trustee Aimee Omstead, who supported the motion, said the government has "abdicated its responsibility" as the election looms.
"This government is playing politics with the safety and staff of our students province and I for one am not comfortable with it at all," she said.
Last week, Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Windsor's acting medical officer of health, said local schools should consider taking their own public health measures.
"I think that it's entirely appropriate for schools to use their policy levers to require masking when children attend school, and that would be our recommendation to the school districts," he said during a Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) media briefing on April 14.
"We are concerned about absenteeism in schools, we're also concerned about absenteeism among hospital staff as well and ... that's an additional burden to public institution including schools and hospitals."
The board's vice-chair Cathy Cooke, who voted against the motion, said the position the board has been put in is "wrong."
"If [Nesathurai] feels that there needs to be a mask policy, he needs to implement it," she said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for WECHU noted that Nesathurai has also said that a provincial mandate would ensure that measures were uniformly applied and enforced across Ontario school boards.
"During this time of increased disease transmission, all individuals are encouraged to wear masks while indoors and when they cannot maintain two metres of distance between themselves and others," the statement said.