Ontario school boards will give teachers N95 masks in January to provide better protection against COVID-19, according to Barb Dobrowolski, the president of the union representing the province’s English Catholic board teachers.
She said that officials from the province’s major education unions were given the news at a meeting with the provincial deputy minister of education last week.
Details were scant, said Dobrowolski. She didn’t know, for example, which staff at elementary and secondary students would be provided with the more protective masks, when they would be distributed and whether masks would be available for students, too.
Education unions, some medical experts and scientists as well as opposition politicians have been calling for N95-type masks since before in-person classes resumed this fall, and their concerns have become more urgent with the emergence of the highly contagious Omicron variant.
A spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce did not answer a query about whether N95 masks would be provided, but supplied a statement about what the province has already done to make schools safer, including “high quality PPE,” improvements to ventilation and air filtration, and more testing.
“We are taking nothing for granted with the emergence of the Omicron variant, which is why we are continuing our collaboration with the Chief Medical Officer of Health to make our schools safer and keep students in-class — critical to their mental and physical health, and academic success,” said the statement from spokesperson Caitlin Clark.
The ministry now provides all education staff with medical masks, and those who require it are also given face shields or goggles, gowns and gloves.
A few school boards, including the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, have allowed staff to wear their own N95 masks if they pay for them.
That decision was hotly debated at the Ottawa-Carleton board, with administrators opposing the idea, saying PPE should be standardized. Staff also raised concerns about health and safety regulations that require respirators like N95 masks to be fit-tested.
Proponents argue that a non-fit tested N95 offers more protection than a medical mask that is baggy and gapes at the sides. Well-fitted respirators like N95s protect the wearer from breathing in virus particles.
A brief in mid-December from Public Health Ontario said that, given the risk posed by Omicron, mask fit and filtration should be optimized.
This can be achieved by wearing either a non-fit tested respirator like a N95 or KN95, or a “well-fitted medical mask,” said the brief.
“Respirators are designed to closely fit or seal to the face, and while fit-testing is not required for use in the community, N95s without fit-testing and KN95s cannot be assumed to filter all of the air inhaled (i.e., respiratory protection).”
A well-fitting mask is key, according to Health Canada. A respirator mask worn in the community doesn’t need formal fit-testing, says guidance from the federal department.
Gary Fenn, a spokesperson for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said he didn’t have full details about masks for educators, either, but local union officials are relating that school boards can order non-fit-tested N95 masks from the province.
Fenn said the union hopes the masks will be distributed by the time schools are supposed to reopen starting Jan. 3.