School board trustees say teachers should be able to wear own masks

The decision by a committee of trustees at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board must still receive final approval at a board meeting.

Ottawa Citizen 4 minute read October 13, 2021

Trustees at Ottawa’s largest school board have recommended that teachers and other educators be allowed to wear their own higher-quality masks at school.

The motion from trustee Justine Bell was approved by a committee composed of all trustees at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board at a meeting Tuesday, but must still receive final approval at a board meeting.

The proposal would clear the way for staff to buy their own N95-type masks, which provide better protection from the airborne spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The Ministry of Education provides medical masks for staff. Students are required to wear non-medical or cloth masks, but can use higher-quality masks if they wish.

Bell said that allowing staff the option of buying their own N95 masks is the least the board can do to protect them.

During the debate held on Zoom, Bell wondered if trustees met in person whether they would show up wearing medical masks. She would wear an N95 mask to protect her colleagues, she said.

Teachers and other educators engage in high-risk activities, such as being in classrooms with unvaccinated elementary students who remove their masks to eat lunch, said Bell.

Trustees also recommended that the chair of the board write to the ministries of education and labour to ask them to consider whether the province should provide masks to all students and staff that are more protective than the Level 2 medical masks now provided staff.

Susan Gardner, the president of the union local representing elementary teachers at the board, said upgraded PPE will add an extra layer of protection that will help with the shared goal of keeping schools open.

“We really should be leaders,” she said.

The board’s superintendent of human resources, Janice McCoy, said she was aware of one other Ontario school board that has adopted a similar policy.

The Thames Valley District School Board allows staff to wear their own approved N95 masks  and has also asked the province to start supplying them for all staff.

McCoy and board director Camille Williams-Taylor said, in a memo to trustees and during the meeting, that allowing staff to wear their own N95 masks would create risks and be hard to implement.

“Wearing the PPE provided by the employer ensures that all staff have appropriate medical-grade, clean and effective PPE to complete the work required and remain safe at work,” said the memo.

Educators might buy masks that are knock-offs with similar names to N95 masks approved by Health Canada, said the memo.

The N95 masks are classified as “respirators,” and require fit testing and training to use them properly, according to  occupational health and safety and labour regulations, said McCoy.

When asked if the medical masks now provided to staff required any training and monitoring to ensure they are worn properly, Williams-Taylor said N95 masks had more stringent requirements for donning and doffing.

Trustee Rob Campbell said he relies on the advice of Ottawa Public Health, which has not called for N95 masks at schools.

The province has said that respirator masks like N95s are not necessary for educators unless they are doing medical procedures that generate aerosols, which aren’t usually done at schools.

That assessment is controversial, however, with some saying it’s not based on the scientific evidence about how the virus can spread in the air, especially in poorly ventilated, crowded and close quarters.

Education unions, some scientists and epidemiologists and opposition politicians at Queen’s Park have called for higher-quality PPE for educators, especially as the province battles the highly contagious Delta variant.

Ryan Imgrund, a biostatistician who posts daily COVID-19 statistics online, has organized a campaign on Thursday to promote the use of better masks among educators. “Wear your superior PPE to work,” says the social media promotion for the “Ontario Education Day of Action.”

The “baggy blue” medical masks provided to school staff are inferior to N95-type masks, Imgrund said in an interview.

Imgrund sends his son to school in an N95 mask, which even if not fitted professionally is far superior to a medical mask, he said.

Some school boards have allowed staff to wear an N95-type mask with the required medical mask on top, so technically they are meeting the province’s requirements, he said.

Officials from two Ontario education unions have warned members not to participate in Thursday’s protest. Refusing to wear the PPE supplied by the school could lead to discipline and be viewed as participating in an illegal strike, said a notice sent to members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.

Imgrund’s own union, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, sent him a “cease and desist” order last week warning him not to tell teachers to participate in the protest, he said.

Imgrund, a high school teacher who took a leave this year to consult on protecting workplaces from COVID-19, requested to speak at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board meeting Tuesday but was told that only five delegations were allowed, and five other people had already signed up to speak on other issues. He was allowed to submit a written brief.

Trustees voted down a request from Bell to allow Imgrund and a doctor who had made a request to be allowed to speak on the mask issue.