Tuesday, December 13, 2022

An Ask to Mask in Class

Here's a run-down of what it's like presenting a motion to request that students masks if they can, two weeks ago, and the final motion that was passed last night. It's been picked up by City News,  CTV News video, CTV News article, CBC News, and NewsTalk 1010. Some of the articles present it as if it's a done deal, but it still has to be ratified on Monday, and then it's in place officially next Tuesday. 

When writing a motion, trustees can suggest a goal (what to do - encourage masks routinely), but can't make operational suggestions (how to do it - a morning announcement asking to please mask, or maybe even a PSA contest!), not even as an example of how the goal might be reached, so it will be in the hands of the board and maybe individual schools to decide what it will look like in practice. The full motion and preamble is down below. 

I've gotten lots of emails about this. Many parents who don't want masks seem to believe that absolutely no parents will support masks in school. They seem to be in a self-reinforcing bubble because I've had way more emails, DMs, phone calls, and in-person discussions with people who desperately want masks back in the classroom. Here's a sample of emails (wiped of any identifying features) from both side, abridged, and it's just a brief sample of what I've received not reflective of the number of conversations from each side. I'm more interested in the arguments against masks, so I saved more of them.

Many who want all discussion of masks ended heard my motion to request masking as a mandate to mask, which led to strawman arguments like suggesting it's illegally ignoring public health's stance against mandates. But my bigger concern is the misinformation around immunity dysregulation (not debt), the long term harm of Covid (not just a cold), and mask effectiveness (they work!). So many are truly concerned that masks will harm their children, and I'd like them to spend 18 minutes listening to Dr. Kim Lavoie's explanation of this misbelief as she clarifies there is no evidence that masks harm kids. As I suggested in my preamble and in the intention of the motion, many people need a much better understanding of how to discern reputable peer-reviewed science from junk science, and need a better education of basic biology in order to make an accurate risk assessment. 

Some bits of misinformation in the emails seem to originate from Action4Canada, a group that also provides "Christian" talking points around abortion, climate change, 5G Tech, LGBTQ, etc. It's one-stop shopping for the type of rhetoric that was used by Trump and his ilk. It's all coming north. Action4Canada was in the news a few months ago for a lawsuit "targeting the provincial government's COVID-19 measures" that was thrown out "for being so poorly crafted it is impossible to respond to. . . . that puts forward a greatest-hits of COVID-19 conspiracy claims, ranging from vaccine microchipping to allegations that the pandemic was pre-planned by the WHO."

It's also very curious to me that many people who don't want their kids to have to wear masks don't want even any encouragement of masks in schools because it's not supported by Public Health despite Dr. Moore being very clear that he strongly recommends masking in all public places. It's black and white thinking that either public health has a mandate OR masks must not work. But it also makes it clear what a bad job Public Health and the media have done to promote these Public Health recommendations. I'm hoping schools can step in where Public Health has left off to teach about their very recommendation and make them much more widely known and understood.

That 18 min. podcast above also explains that the problem with successful precautions is that when masks work, we can't actually see them working. But Bill Comeau calculated 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 was a choice

Some trustees were in favour of the motion because they've seen the enormous peer pressure to not wear a mask, and think we need to show leadership in line with Dr. Moore's strong recommendation to wear masks because we have to help mitigate the strain on hospitals right now. 

Some trustees opposed the motion because requesting people wear one if they can is too much pressure, and they didn't want masks encouraged either. Again, that's so curious to me. And some thought we shouldn't have masks because some kids don't wear them properly or drop them on the ground, causing a bio-hazard to others. Others questioned how is this different from what we're doing? I responded at the end that it's not different, but more. Kids in class aren't hearing any encouragement to wear a mask, to the point that they're afraid to wear one. We have to make it more comfortable for kids to mask in class. 

It's very tricky to write a mandate that can't have operational examples.  A few people suggested it could be interpreted to allow badgering kids several times a day, over and over, to please wear a mask, which could definitely feel punitive. That's why I put in an example of a morning announcement from the office, but it was removed for being an overreach! I had three other people involved in writing the initial motion, but it was still problematic. It seems to me (at this very early stage of figuring all this out), that since motions aren't allowed any examples of an operational suggestion, they will necessarily be open to misinterpretation of the intention. We need a lot of good faith in the mix to hope it's implemented in the right spirit! 

It's not the first time I felt like a law degree is necessary to do this job. It would definitely be handy. ETA: Actually, it might be more like coding! Write each statement so there's no possible alternative interpretation as if it's a command being processed by a machine. Otherwise someone will think "ask them to mask if they can" means harass them. My background's in philosophy, so I should be better at this, but I forgot myself and wrote it as if people would understand the intention behind it. 

Finally, I liked Trustee Piatkowski's comment on the motion: "It's both the least we can do, and also the most we can do." It feels like so little, but at least it's something, and we really can't make anything more actually happen. It's a frustrating position to just be able to nudge things along the tiniest bit with so many parents putting all their hope on you to keep their children safer. So many little ones are so sick, and the solution is blindingly clear, but impossible to reach. 

Here's the original motion, which I introduced at a board meeting two weeks ago:

RE: Requesting Masks for Staff, Students, and Visitors in Our Buildings 

WHEREAS a board mask mandate would be an imposition on staff to enforce, isn't supported by our local Medical Officer of Health, and could potentially create hostility and divisiveness in our schools; 

 WHEREAS there has been a significant increase of Covid-19 cases, influenza, RSV, and other serious respiratory and airborne diseases in the Region of Waterloo, putting the health and well-being of our staff and students in jeopardy as demonstrated by the levels of hospital admissions in the region, the extended wait times for access to the emergency room, and inconsistent access to emergency vehicles in our region; AND 

WHEREAS recent statements from the Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health strongly recommends wearing well-fitting masks, and the Region of Waterloo Public Health strongly advises masks "in any indoor space other than your home" to curb the spread of respiratory viruses that are having a damaging effect on our community members, and that the Government of Canada recognizes that over 30% of all Covid-19 cases are carriers without symptoms, which means we can feel healthy but still be spreading this virus; 


That the WRDSB request all staff, students, and visitors wear a mask, if they can and whenever they can, until the Region of Waterloo Public Health is no longer recommending masks be worn inside public buildings; and 

That this request is routinely shared with all staff and students at WRDSB locations, which could look like a regular morning announcement that say "We're asking all staff and student to please mask whenever you can"; and 

That our communication platforms are used to help circulate factual information to the WRDSB community, from the Region of Waterloo Public Health, about the benefits of wearing well-fitting masks. 

That the policy to request masks be worn will take effect on the first school day after this motion is ratified by the Board of Trustees.

And here's my preamble that I read out last night to introduce the motion for discussion. (You can see me read it and hear the entire discussion starting at 2:12:00. I had to read this pretty fast to fit within the five minute maximum, but the discussion goes for almost a full hour.) I introduced it and then commented at the very end about the need for something more to help the little ones not feel so intimidated to wear a mask. 

A Request, Not a Mandate 

Through the chair… 

This motion is an attempt to help us find some middle ground together, and do as much as we can within our educational parameters to support the many families who want their children masked but also to acknowledge the many families who want nothing to do with masking. 

This is such a difficult time to be caring for children, and I know we all want to do our very best to protect them, so I want to provide the agency to do that. This motion is a daily request for staff and students to wear a mask if they can and whenever they can in order to reduce the spread of this virus and others - just a request without any rewards or punishments attached. The aim is to continue to allow personal choice without question, AND to promote masks wherever possible. 

I understand that some parents don't want any reminders of the pandemic, but ignoring it stops us from solving this problem, which IS solvable. In order to provide full agency to complete an accurate personal risk assessment, we need everyone to be well educated on Covid, so I'm also asking for information to be posted on the board website in a clear and accessible manner. That might include current regional hospitalization rates that make it clear that Covid hasn't ended, but is, in fact, worse. Covid hospitalizations in the Region in November were four times higher than the previous November. Nearly 1 in 1000 people have died from Covid in our region, which is ten times higher than average traffic fatalities. I know we don't want to frighten children, but we do tell them to buckle up for safety when we get in a car because we know the risks. We haven't lost a student yet, but there have been 20 deaths of children and teens from Covid across Ontario, and I am hearing from many, many parents about concerns with repeat absences this school year causing more disruption than the situation in previous years. 

This data might feel uncomfortable, but it's factually compelling. We can provide further relevant biology, physics, and statistics, from reputable peer-reviewed sources, like the Delphi Consensus, in which 386 experts from 112 countries came to a consensus that masks are necessary to reduce transmission since vaccines aren't enough. 

We need to teach that masks do work to reduce the spread with excellent videos explaining how they work. We can explain how to use CO2 monitors to avoid breathing in lung backwash, and teach that anybody can have Covid without knowing it since about a third of cases are carriers with NO symptoms, and rapid tests have lots of false negatives, so we mask, if we can, just in case we have it. We also need everyone to be aware it's not just a cold. It's a vascular disease, which means it can stay in the bloodstream and then, for many people, months or years later, come back to affect the brain or heart or any other organ, the risk increasing with each infection. We need to teach that the immune system doesn't work like a muscle, so we don't need to get sick to protect ourselves from getting sick. There's some really dangerous misinformation out there, like this, that could be rectified. Our primary role is to educate, so our job is to address the facts: Covid's still here, and masks DO help to reduce transmission according to an overwhelming and growing scientific consensus. 

I've heard concerns that a request won't have any effect anyway, so what's the point, but every day teachers ask kids to take their seat, listen when others are speaking, get a pencil out, etc. and students follow. My impetus to present this motion is from hearing from many parents who have kids who want to wear a mask, but the atmosphere in the classroom makes it difficult for them to stand out as the only ones. It is my sincere belief that a regular request to please mask if you can, coupled with education, will make it much more comfortable for students to mask in class if they wish. Because we will always have some students and staff who can't wear a mask, we'll need people to be aware of that as well, and aware that it makes it even more important for the rest of us to mask to help protect those who cannot. 

One study estimates that with just one contagious person in a room, and everyone in an N95, the risk of infection is down to 0.4%. With none or only 1 person masked in a classroom, the risk of spread is closer to 90%. The more masks the better, and the better quality, the better, but we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I don't want educators to have to police mask wearing, and sometimes just a request is enough to change behaviour to let kids feel like they have permission to protect themselves and others. 

Our education campaign, PSA videos and posters were able to dramatically reduce pregnancies and STIs. Granted our success there took time that we don't have with Covid, but I believe it's possible, and our duty as educators, to teach people the vital importance of wearing a mask, which follows directly from the Public Health's recommendation to mask "in any indoor space other than your home." No children are in our overflowing hospitals gasping for breath because of harm from a mask; they're in there because of a virus. We can play a part in reducing the strain on hospitals with this simple measure of trying to increase mask wearing for those willing to wear one. It's on us to make sure we teach reputable scientific information, and do what we can to keep kids safer with regular reminders to please mask if you can, so we can all benefit from less illness with this accessible, low cost solution.

And here's the amended version that passed seven to three: 

1. That the WRDSB request - encourage all staff, students, and visitors wear a mask, if they can and whenever they can, until the Region of Waterloo Public Health is no longer recommending masks be worn inside public buildings; and 

That this request is routinely shared with all staff and students at WRDSB locations, which could look like a regular morning announcement that say "We're asking all staff and student to please mask whenever you can"; and 

That this policy to request - motion masks be worn will take effect on the first school day after this motion is ratified by the Board of Trustees. 

2. That our communication platforms are used to help circulate factual information to the WRDSB community, from the Region of Waterloo Public Health, about the benefits of wearing well-fitting masks.


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