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School mask mandates again? Why some experts believe it’s a good idea

As cases of COVID-19 increase across the country, some health experts are hoping schools will reinstate mask mandates in order to help stop the spread of the virus and other respiratory illnesses as fall approaches and warnings of a “tridemic” grow.

Mandatory masking in schools was phased out across the country last year. Eastern provinces, like Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, were the final provinces to drop the requirement, officially ending it on May 24, 2022.

0:37 B.C. COVID-19 safety group pens open letter to province ahead of return to schools

But as students head back to school in the coming weeks, experts are cautioning about the looming risk posed by three prominent viruses: respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza and COVID-19. They argue reinstating mask mandates within schools may help mitigate the transmission of these viruses.

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“The province should step in and mandate masks, we know that masks work,” said Dr. Catherine Clase, a professor of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

“We know that COVID spreads through schools… we know that having had COVID and having had a vaccine is not going to stop kids from having COVID again.”

She added that although COVID-19 vaccines are helpful in preventing hospitalizations and deaths, they should be paired with masks.

4:16 Potential fall wave from latest COVID variant

Last flu season saw a surge of all three respiratory viruses in Canada, especially among children, which was exacerbated by a lack of pain relievers. The situation led to increased hospitalizations and more emergency room visits.

Many health officials believe the triple threat of viruses may hit Canadians again this fall. There are also new COVID-19 variants circulating that could further exacerbate the situation.

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In response to this, a group of physicians, nurses and educators in British Columbia called Protect Our Province BC (PoP), penned a letter to the provincial government in early August, calling to reinstate masks in schools.

“In September, BC parents will be sending their children back to school just as newer recombinant SARS-CoV-2 variants will be circulating. As well, just like last year, RSV and influenza are expected to hit children hard,” the letter stated.

“We are on track for a rinse-and-repeat of last year.”

The authors urged the B.C. government to bring back mask protections in schools, with high-quality masks, such as KN95, to control COVID-19 and other airborne viruses.

Will mask mandates come back?

Masks that are worn correctly are essential to reducing the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses, according to health experts.

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“Masks are one of the most effective personal protective measures that we can use to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19,” a spokesperson from Health Canada told Global News in an email Monday.

“When layered with other public health measures, a well-constructed, well-fitting and properly worn mask can help prevent you from getting COVID-19 and spreading COVID-19 to others.”

When asked whether Health Canada believes mask mandates should come back, the spokesperson said that public health measures, such as masks, fall within provincial and territorial jurisdiction.

A spokesperson from Toronto Public Health told Global News in an email Tuesday there are key public health measures that should be upheld by schools to curb the transmission of respiratory viruses.

“With the anticipated rise in respiratory virus activity during the fall, the use of well-fitted, high-quality masks becomes even more relevant, particularly in indoor environments that are crowded and have inadequate ventilation. This measure holds greater significance for individuals who are at a higher risk of developing severe illness,” the spokesperson said.

Global News emailed a few school boards across Canada asking if institutions were going to bring back mask mandates.

A spokesperson for the Vancouver School Board (VSB) said the district relies on guidance from the province.

“All schools and workplaces within the district are mask-friendly environments. As per current guidelines, the decision to wear a mask is a personal one, based on individual and family preference. Should the guidelines and/or direction change, district staff will ensure that this information is communicated to students and families,” a VSB spokesperson stated in an email on Tuesday.

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A spokesperson for Pembina Trails School Division in Winnipeg told Global News in an email on Tuesday that the division follows guidelines set by public health and will “continue to do so.”

1:59 Health experts worry about implications of Alberta ban on school mask mandates

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Although the new COVID-19 variants have many people worried, Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said he does not believe mandates will come back in school settings.

“It was challenging to have mask mandates in schools…(but) in hospitals, we didn’t have as much trouble at all. People kind of bought into that for the longest time. And I agree that it was important and useful,” he said.

He added that because mask mandates have become very polarizing, he envisions politicians being unlikely to adopt them willingly.

“I don’t think I see an appetite at many levels to bring in mask mandates, other than we would have them in place at a hospital setting, have them in place in nursing homes. That’s where some of the impacts of COVID can be so huge.  I think we are going to see those coming back,” he said.

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The case for and against masks

While mask mandates may generate differing opinions among the public, Evans emphasized that they do prove effective from a health standpoint.

“There’s no question that masking helps. It reduces the potential for droplets and some short-range aerosols to impact in the area where they’re going to cause an infection,” he said. “It probably works about 50 per cent of the time, especially if there’s reasonably good adherence.

However, he acknowledges the difficulty enforcing masks in school settings, especially with young children, who may have a difficult time wearing them all day.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of problems with parents getting their kids to mask. And I think there are going to be children and youth who actually decide of their own accord that they want to mask. And particularly maybe if there’s a lot of cases in school,” he said.

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Evans stressed that schools should have soap dispensers and hand sanitizer available in order to ensure proper hand hygiene practices to prevent the spread of illnesses.

He added it’s also important for staff to clean commonly touched surfaces.

0:31 COVID-19: Canada ‘likely at the start’ of new wave of infections

Clase, also a member of McMaster University’s Centre of Excellence in Protective Equipment and Materials, expressed concern that if masks are made optional this school season, a significant number of students might choose not to wear them.

“Children are not going to wear masks unless there’s a mask mandate, because we saw how quickly kids stopped wearing masks when they didn’t have to. The peer pressure that affects children in school, it’s really extraordinary,” she said.

“We’re still going to need to make it a rule for children and young adults to wear masks in school.”

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Once mask mandates are put in place, Clase argued it will help protect vulnerable people at school and at home.

She added that implementing mask mandates before the onset of last year’s flu season could have helped stop transmission and reduce hospitalizations.

“What we need to do is go back to wearing masks in crowded indoor settings and classrooms are absolutely classic crowded indoor settings,” she said.