Ott. school board debates whether teachers can wear own masks

Ottawa Citizen 4 minute read October 12, 2021

Justine Bell, Ottawa-Carleton District School Board trustee for Somerset-Kitchissippi at Cambridge Street Community Public School, Sunday, March 21, 2021. Ashley Fraser / Postmedia

Trustees at Ottawa’s largest school board plan to debate a motion Tuesday to allow teachers and other educators to wear their own higher-quality masks at school.

Trustee Justine Bell, who proposed the motion, says teachers should be allowed to wear N95-type masks, which provide better protection from the airborne spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Educators have been told they must wear the Level 2 medical masks provided by the province. Bell says she also plans to propose that trustees ask the province to provide better masks than Level 2 for all staff and students.

The province requires students to wear non-medical or cloth masks. Most students provide their own masks, and are allowed to wear higher-quality ones such as an N95 if they choose.

The administration of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board does not support educators being allowed to provide their own masks, saying that would create risks as administrators lose control over what employees are wearing.

“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.”

Educators might, for example, buy masks that are knock-offs with similar names to N95 masks approved by Health Canada, said the memo. It also said staff would have to be trained on how to wear the N95 masks, which are classified as respirators.

Ottawa Public Health and the province have said respirators are not necessary for educators unless they are doing procedures that generate aerosols.

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.

He doesn’t buy the argument that school board administrators would have to police the proper use of the higher-quality masks if teachers brought their own. “They don’t police the use of the medical masks,” he points out. “They don’t give lessons on (how to wear) medical masks.”

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.

Imgrund, a high school teacher who took a leave this year to consult on protecting workplaces from COVID-19, was told by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board that he cannot speak on the issue at Tuesday’s meeting, he said. The board is invoking a bylaw limiting the number of delegations, he said.

Instead of trying to shut down debate on the issue, school boards should be offering their staff superior masks to protect them, said Imgrund.

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.

The motion being debated Tuesday at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board says staff should be allowed to obtain their own Health Canada-approved respirator, and if they do must follow the application and removal guidelines stipulated by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

Susan Gardner, the president of the local representing elementary teachers at the board, said the union has to be cautious in recommending members do anything that might be construed as an illegal job action.

Gardner supports the idea of the board allowing teachers to bring their own higher-quality masks to school as a “first step.”

“We would all prefer if the (Ontario Ministry of Education) would provide the level of PPE that our members deserve. We know that COVID-19 is airborne.”

A big concern is educators in special-education classes where students have difficulty self-regulating and some don’t wear masks, she said.

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

Trustees at the Limestone District School Board passed a motion requesting the province provide PPE superior to Level 2 for all staff and students.