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Rainbow board extends mask-wearing policy to its youngest students

Grades 1-12 students required to wear masks; kindergarteners have face shield option
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(From left) Thomas Oliver, 6, the son of Sudbury.com new media reporter Heather Green-Oliver, and her nephews Josh Green, 6, and Alex Green, 8, are ready for back-to-school time with their masks. (Heather Green-Oliver/Sudbury.com)

Following the lead of several other school boards in Ontario, the Rainbow District School Board has extended its mask-wearing policy to its youngest students.

Trustees with the school board unanimously passed the following motion Tuesday evening: “With reasonable exceptions, be it resolved that in Rainbow schools, all students Grades 1-12 wear masks, and all kindergarten students wear masks and/or face shields.”

The motion to extend mask-wearing to younger students beyond the provincial requirement mandating their use in Grade 4 and up was brought forward by trustee Margaret Stringer.

She spent some time researching the topic after the motion was deferred at the last meeting to allow for more information to be gathered.

Stringer said a number of other school boards across the province have opted to require masks from kindergarten to Grade 12, and those decisions have not been overruled by the province. 

“I believe that for many parents, mask-wearing requirements are an important factor in the decision whether to send their child to school or keep them at home for online learning,” Stringer said, speaking at the Sept. 1 meeting. 

“Their children have already been wearing masks when they go out in public and have essentially come to understand the importance of mask wearing. They know it helps keep everyone safer. They know it shows respect and caring for others. For these parents, mandating mask wearing for our youngest students will allow them to be more comfortable with in-school learning.”

She also referenced Amy Greer, a Canadian research chair in population disease modelling and associate professor at the University of Guelph, who said that there is a benefit to younger kids wearing masks, even if it’s done imperfectly.

Currently, the provincial government only requires that school boards require face masks for students in Grade 4 and up. Students in kindergarten to Grade 3 are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks in indoor spaces.

The province says reasonable exceptions to the requirement to wear masks are expected to be put in place by schools and school boards. 

Staff or students with sensory or breathing difficulties may be exempted by the school principal, guided by school board policies.

In its reopening plan, the Rainbow board said outdoor times such as recess can be used as opportunities to provide students with breaks from wearing masks.

Students are encouraged to bring spare masks in the event one becomes wet or damaged throughout the day. Masks should be washed and dried on a nightly basis.

Trustee Anita Gibson said the Thames Valley school board, one of the Ontario boards that has passed a similar motion, has publicly stated that the motion was not enforceable. “If it’s not enforceable, I guess what we’re really doing is asking,” she said. 

Rainbow board director of education Norm Blaseg said there is nothing within the Education Act that would result in students being punished for failing to wear masks.

“I don’t think there should be,” Blaseg said. “I think this is an educational piece.” He said it’s all about educating kids at a very young age about public health measures such as physical distancing and wearing PPE such as masks or face shields.

“We try to build in a skill set over time,” he said. “For some students, this will be easy. For others it will be a challenge, but it’s up to the adults in the room and the peers in the room to help move that along.”

Rainbow board chair Doreen Dewar said when it came to the mask issue, she feels “like a gerbil on a wheel — I just have gone around, and I can make a good case for either one.”

She said she was swayed in favour of younger students wearing masks by phone calls and emails from parents in favour of the initiative, as well as a conversation with Liana Holm, president of the Rainbow local of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO).

“I asked her what her teachers would like,” Dewar said. “The last thing I want is to create more work for them …  

“She said absolutely, the teachers would like the kids to all wear masks. They’re willing to put in the time. They’re willing to dedicate themselves to teaching kids how to keep their masks on.”

Sudbury.com spoke to Holm to get her reaction to the board passing the motion requiring masks for younger students.

“It’s wonderful,” Holm said. “It’s a step in the right direction. I think it’s going to make everybody feel safer not only students and teachers, but also parents, and for the broader community. 

“We shouldn’t underestimate our little people. They can do this. This is what teachers do. We deal with everything from kids who can’t zip up their own coats when they come to school to kids who are not toilet trained.

“Wearing a mask is just going to be one of those things we’re going to teach them to do.”