A Polite Request is NOT a Mandate
A few parents are upset that I'm trying to "bring back masks" in schools. Some have threatened to take their kids out of our board if we force masks on them again. The motion I presented last Monday very carefully tried to assure people that I don't want to force kids to do anything they don't want to do, but I do want to help more kids, who want to wear a mask, feel like they're allowed to wear one. From what I've been hearing from tons of parents, their children won't mask in class because people bug them about it, or remind them they don't have to mask, sometimes even their teachers.
The motion itself starts by acknowledging that a mandate won't work, and then my preamble went further to explain that this is a way to find a middle ground so there really will be a free choice to wear a mask or not. We need to do more to make staff and students really aware that we are following public health guidance, which STRONGLY recommends masking indoors. We're already officially encouraging masking, so I'm not asking for anything to change as much as I'm asking for us to do more. The encouragement isn't being heard in the classroom.
We could start with better messaging.
Our board message about Covid from September 2022 said,
"Please remain kind, considerate and respectful to those who choose to continue wearing a mask."
This phrasing implicitly puts NOT masking as the default, and suggests that we should try to be nice to the few who make that alternative choice to wear a mask. As a trustee, I can present a motion that we do more, but I can't say what that looks like because that's operational, and I'll be accused of overreach, but, just between us, imagine flipping that message to this one:
"Please wear a mask if you can, whenever you can, but remain kind, considerate, and respectful to those who choose not to mask or who are unable to wear a mask."
That makes wearing a mask the default and also reminds people to be nice to people who do otherwise.
On November 14th, after Dr. Moore "strongly recommended masking in all indoor public settings, including schools and childcare settings," my board's messaging change to this:
"While masking is not mandatory, wearing a mask helps to reduce the spread of viruses in our schools."
Again, the emphasis, the first part of the message, clarifies that masks don't have to be worn, but then tells us, just by the way, that it does help to reduce the spread. It doesn't even suggest people wear a mask. And it's not on the front page of the website, but in a blogpost. There's no information about Covid directly on the homepage, and clicking the "Covid-19 News" button just goes to information about our contact with public health followed by a list of links. The only link there that's about stopping the spread leads to information about international travel rules.
By contrast, HWDSB's social media message, which is also on prominent on the homepage of their board website, says,
"We want to remind you that HWDSB is asking students and staff to wear a mask given the widespread occurrences of various respiratory illnesses."
The TDSB forwarded a letter from public health to parents that said, in no uncertain terms,
"Wear a well-fitted mask in indoor public settings, including in schools and childcare."
WRDSB trustees received a letter from Dr. Wang, the Medical Officer of Health for the region, on November 28th, that says,
"I echo the recommendation of the CMOH, Dr. Kieran Moore, to wear well-fitting facemasks in indoor public settings at this time. . . . This recommendation includes all individuals in schools and childcare settings over the age of two, who can safely and effectively wear a mask."
That wasn't forwarded along anywhere that I know of.
Even at OCDSB, where mandates were loudly overruled, the message is more actively stated (albeit a run-on sentence),
"Our schools are mask friendly and we respect the personal decisions of students, families and staff."
I originally proposed a "request" to mask, and that got changed to "encouragement" to mask, which, it was noted, was already being done so why bother with the motion to do the exact same thing we're already doing, which is similar to what happened in Ottawa! Some argued that, since my motion is not a mandate, and can't be enforced, then what's the point? I responded that sometimes just asking politely is enough. This prompted others to argue that just encouraging masks is too much like a mandate, since some kids won't disobey a request, which makes it essentially a mandate, and then that makes it illegal, and I should be sued for even raising this issue again!
Here's the thing:
If we don't do something to get masks on more kids by the time they come back in January, after everyone's gone visiting and travelling for two weeks as if the pandemic ended and there isn't a healthcare crisis with overflowing hospitals and not enough meds to go around, then it's quite likely we'll have another huge surge of cases, and we're very likely going to LOSE SOME KIDS. Our board has been lucky so far in that respect, but we're being outrageously reckless to do so little to mitigate the spread of these viruses in our schools. We've added some HEPA units, but there's definitely not one in each classroom yet, and some are so loud that some teachers turn them off. No quiet CR boxes are allowed, no open windows, no distancing, no CO2 monitors on display, and very few kids in masks. Encouraging masks is the absolute least we could be doing.
Yet it's still not a mandate.
Here's what I tweeted to the masses:
Waterloo Region just hit 500 deaths from Covid so far. [That's about 1 in 1,000 people gone.] My heart goes out to all the families affected. Let's do everything we can to prevent any more transmission of this virus and others by wearing well-fitting masks. Comparing December 14th in the past three years here...
On Dec. 14, 2020, we were averaging 34 hospitalizations per day and then had a full lockdown to control the spread from December 26 to February 8. On Dec. 14, 2021, we were averaging 13 hospitalizations per day, so we got a little over-confident with Omicron and extended the school break by just two days in January. Three weeks later, we ended up averaging 144 hospitalizations per day! This year, on Dec. 14, 2022, we're averaging 38 hospitalizations per day, a bit more than in 2020, and about THREE TIMES higher than last year, and we definitely won't have another lockdown. Some people really oppose kindly asking staff and students to please wear a mask if they can to protect our kids, but masks are all we have to try to prevent another peak after we spend two weeks socializing and travelling. I am legit terrified of what January will bring.
In 2021, we had masks and vaccinations, but then the masks came off for two weeks of visiting over the holidays just in time for a Omicron to take hold. It appears that masks alone in December 2020 are doing about the same as vaccinations alone in 2022, but then 2020 was also helped with that lockdown that we won't have this year. We need LAYERS of protection. We can only get by with one thing at a time for so long. And, now people are getting way behind on vaccinations too because, in part, they've been led to believe since the virus didn't disappear after one shot, then the vaccinations must not work. They DO work to reduce the impact of the virus, but Covid mutates way too quickly for a one-and-done approach. It's more like the flu than polio in that respect. Recently, the BQ variants surpassed the BA.5s in Ontario, which means the boosters we just got, although they still help, won't work as well with the BQ version. We REALLY need to WEAR MASKS - as many of us as possible, and as high quality as possible!!
Part of a response to a parent today, was about what these graphs don't show us:
What we don't see in those graphs is the probability of cases that would have happened without masks, but we might be about to see that this year, which is terrifying. Bill Comeau, a retired U of W stats prof, did some calculations and deduced that "If mask mandates had not been dropped, right now we could be looking at roughly 4.4 million fewer infected by Omicron, 2,300 fewer Omicron deaths, 230,000 fewer long covid cases, and of course fewer child respiratory illnesses that are currently overwhelming children's hospitals."
It could have been so much worse last January if we hadn't done all that we did do.