Trustees from Ottawa’s largest school board have postponed a vote on whether to make masks compulsory in schools after a dramatic special meeting took place Tuesday night in which security forces and police removed some people for disruptive behavior.
School board chair Lyra Evans repeatedly chastised parents and other members of the public throughout the evening for inappropriate shouting and cheering.
Twice Evans called abrupt pauses during which security guards and police officers escorted people out of the congregation.
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) new trustee, Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth, on Tuesday, introduced the motion for masks to be required in all activities except music and other performing arts or sports where they cannot be worn, and during lunch or snack breaks.
The filing signals a recent surge in COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and is struggling to keep up in the area’s intensive care units and at CHEO, Ottawa’s East Ontario Children’s Hospital.
It also cites strong recommendations from local health authorities and Dr. Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore to wear a mask indoors.
Just before 10:30 p.m., the trustees voted to adjourn their meeting – meaning their vote was postponed to a later date. The trustees voted to resume the meeting “at the earliest opportunity” but did not say when.
Dramatic evening of screaming, evicting parents
Several times throughout the night, Evans warned the public not to clap, cheer and shout during delegation speeches and presentations by health officials.
“I understand that audiences have strong feelings about what is being said by the delegations … regardless of which side of this issue you land on,” Evans told the crowd. “Please refrain from shouting.”
Once, during a presentation by Lindy Samson, chief of staff at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, parents could be heard screaming in the background as Samson explained that there was evidence supporting the masking’s effectiveness.
Evans interrupted Samson to urge the crowd to keep their voices down, “I really don’t want to start chasing people from this meeting, but if you insist on causing a riot, I have to.”
Shortly thereafter, Evans asked security to begin evacuating people from the room just before the board’s live stream was cut off for more than 30 minutes.
When the meeting resumed, the parents continued to shout while Samson finished her presentation. At this point, Evans called another break.
A room full of parents can be seen in videos tweeted by Ottawa Citizen reporter Jacquie Miller at the gathering – some masked and others wrapped in the Canadian flag and sporting jackets that read “Freedom.”
In other videos posted by Miller, A police officer is seen escorting a woman out, while some spectators applaud. Others silence the crowd. Later people will be heard Singing “Liberty” while trustees huddle together, singing the national anthemand are seen leaving the room under orders from an Ottawa police officer.
The trustees resumed their meeting just before 9 p.m. after asking the public to leave the gathering.
A CBC reporter was then banned from the meeting room.
Three patrol cars were stationed in front of the meeting building throughout the evening.
Parents split, emotional
Salma Al-Shehabi, a mother who presented her perspective virtually with her son by her side, urged trustees not to introduce mandate masks, citing the importance of children’s ability to communicate freely.
She suggested a solution for parents and children concerned about rising respiratory diseases in the community to turn to online learning.
Al-Shehabi said masking was “a personal choice,” citing the Ontario Department of Health’s stance. She also noted that Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore appeared maskless at an event last week – just days after he “strongly” recommended masks in indoor public spaces.
Blake Maguire, a father of four, personally explained how masking has affected his children.
“I noticed anxiety, I noticed depression, my A student became a C student,” Maguire said, getting emotional. “They are not good for children at the moment.”
Meanwhile, Carolyn Moffatt, mother of four students, gave a virtual presentation in support of the mask requirement.
Moffatt, who said she was once a midwife in neonatal intensive care units and a policy adviser working with influenza guidelines, pointed to the current strain on Ontario’s children’s hospitals due to an increase in respiratory illnesses.
“Do now what you did then. Help our community now,” she asked trustees, asking them to repeat their vote on making masks mandatory in April amid a sixth wave of COVID-19.
Can the board bring in another mandate?
Before the vote, there were questions about whether the board could bring in a mandate for masks without Ottawa Public Health (OPH) doing it first.
On Monday, the Ontario Department of Health said school boards do not have the power to mandate masks, only OPH or Moore.
OCDSB Chair Evans disputed the province’s claim, saying legal opinions received by the board contradicted the department. The board has “legal authority” to implement a masking requirement, she said, but declined to add more, citing attorney-client privilege.
In a statement to CBC, OPH said it was “pleased” with the province’s strong recommendation that masks be worn in public settings, including schools, where possible.
An OPH spokesman also wrote that the health unit is not currently considering a local mask mandate.
“Given the province-wide challenge and the benefits of a unified approach, the province is best placed to effectively implement a mask mandate,” the statement added.
The Catholic board says it cannot mandate masks
On Monday, a spokesman for the Ottawa Catholic Schools Board said it strongly recommends mask-wearing but cannot enforce a mandate without “health-related laws or orders.”
However, if local health officials issue an order or the province legislates for masks in schools, the Catholic board could “move quickly,” spokeswoman Sharlene Hunter said in an email.
She described mask-wearing as a “divisive issue” and said mandating it without official support would cause “unnecessary conflict”.