As cases of COVID-19 surge across the country, some health experts are hoping schools will reinstate mask requirements to halt the spread of the virus and other respiratory illnesses as fall nears and warnings of a “tridemic” mount.
The mask requirement in schools was abolished nationwide last year. Eastern provinces, like Nova Scotia And Prince Edward Islandwere the last provinces to lift the requirement, officially ending it on May 24, 2022.
But as students head back to school in the coming weeks, experts are warning of the looming threat posed by three well-known viruses: respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza and COVID-19. They argue that reintroducing mask requirements in schools could help curb the transmission of these viruses.
“The province should step in and make masks mandatory. We know masks work,” said Dr. Catherine Clase, Professor of Medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
“We know that COVID is spreading in schools…we know that getting COVID and getting a shot won't stop kids from getting COVID again.”
She added that while COVID-19 vaccines are helpful in preventing hospitalization and death, they should be paired with masks.
Possible autumn wave due to the latest COVID variant
Last flu season saw surges in all three respiratory viruses in Canada, particularly among children, compounded by a shortage of painkillers. The situation led to an increase in hospitalizations and more emergency room visits.
Many health officials believe the triple virus threat could hit Canadians again in the fall. In addition, new COVID-19 variants are in circulation, which could further aggravate the situation.
In response, a group of doctors, nurses and educators in British Columbia called Protect Our Province BC (PoP) wrote a letter contacted the provincial government in early August, demanding the reintroduction of masks in schools.
“In September, British Columbia parents will send their children back to school just as newer recombinant SARS-CoV-2 variants are circulating. Also, RSV and influenza are expected to hit children hard, just like last year,” the letter said.
“We're well on our way to repeating last year.”
The authors called on the British Columbia government to reinstate mask protection in schools with high-quality masks such as KN95 to combat COVID-19 and other airborne viruses.
Will the mask requirement come back?
Masks worn correctly are essential to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses, according to health experts.
“Masks are one of the most effective personal protective measures we can use to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19,” a Health Canada spokesman told Global News in an email on Monday.
“Combined with other public health measures, a well-designed, well-fitting, and worn mask can help prevent you from catching and spreading COVID-19 to others.”
Asked if Health Canada believes mask requirements should be reinstated, the spokesman said public health measures, such as masks, are the responsibility of the provinces and territories.
A spokesman for Toronto Public Health Global News said in an email on Tuesday that schools should comply with important public health measures to curb transmission of the respiratory virus.
“With the expected rise in respiratory virus activity in the fall, the use of well-fitting, high-quality masks becomes even more important, especially indoors where it is crowded and ventilation is inadequate. This measure has greater significance for individuals who are at higher risk of developing serious illnesses,” the spokesman said.
Global News emailed some school boards across Canada asking if institutions would reintroduce mask requirements.
A Vancouver School Board (VSB) spokesman said the district is relying on provincial guidance.
“All schools and workplaces in the district are mask-friendly environments. Under current guidelines, the decision to wear a mask is a personal choice and based on individual and family preferences. Should there be a change in policy and/or direction, district staff will ensure this information is shared with students and families,” a VSB spokesman said in an email on Tuesday.
A spokesman for the Pembina Trails School Division in Winnipeg told Global News in an email Tuesday that the department is following public health guidelines and “will continue to do so.”
Health experts are concerned about the impact of Alberta's school mask ban
Although the new COVID-19 variants worry many people, Dr. Gerald Evans, a specialist in infectious diseases at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, said he doesn't think schools will be subject to restrictions again.
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“It was a challenge to make masks compulsory in schools… (but) in hospitals we didn't have that much of a problem at all. People have long accepted that. And I agree that it was important and useful,” he said.
He added that politicians were unlikely to voluntarily adopt them as mask requirements have become very divisive.
“I don't think I see a desire on many levels to introduce mask requirements unless we were to introduce them in hospitals or nursing homes. This is where some of the impact of COVID can be so huge. I think we'll see those come back,” he said.
The argument for and against masks
While mask requirements may cause differing opinions among the public, Evans stressed that they are proving effective from a health perspective.
“There is no question that masking helps. It reduces the possibility of droplets and some short-range aerosols getting into the area where they will cause infection,” he said. “It probably works about 50 percent of the time, especially if compliance is reasonably good.“
However, he acknowledges that masks are difficult to enforce in schools, especially among young children who may find it difficult to wear them throughout the day.
“I think we're going to have a lot of problems with parents making their kids wear masks. And I think there will be children and young people who actually decide of their own accord that they want to mask themselves. And maybe especially if there are a lot of cases at school,” he said.
Evans stressed that schools should have soap dispensers and hand sanitizer to ensure proper hand hygiene and prevent the spread of disease.
He added that it is also important for staff to clean frequently touched surfaces.
COVID-19: Canada “likely at the beginning” of a new wave of infections
Clase, also a member of McMaster University's Center of Excellence in Protective Equipment and Materials, expressed concern that a significant number of students could potentially choose not to wear masks when masks become optional this school season.
“Children will not wear masks unless there is a mask requirement because we have seen how quickly children stopped wearing masks when they didn't have to.” The peer pressure that affects children at school is really extraordinary,” she said.
“We must continue to make it a rule for children and young adults to wear masks in school.”
Clase argued that making masks compulsory will help protect vulnerable people at school and at home.
She added that introducing mask requirements before the flu season started last year would have helped halt transmission and reduce hospitalizations.
“What we need to do is start wearing masks again in crowded indoor spaces, and classrooms are absolutely classic crowded indoor spaces,” she said.