Masks mandatory for Haliburton County students going back to school

Plans for staggered start, one-course block for high school students discussed at TLDSB meeting

By Sue Tiffin

Staff reporter

All students physically going back to school in Haliburton County next month will be required to wear masks, regardless of which grade they are in.

At an Aug. 25 board meeting, Trillium Lakelands District School board trustees passed a motion for students in kindergarten through Grade 3 to wear masks in class and on the bus, extending provincial requirements announced earlier in the month by the Ministry of Education that made it mandatory for students in Grade 4 to 12 to wear masks upon returning to schools in Ontario during the coronavirus pandemic. The school board had previously encouraged but not required students in lower grades to wear masks.

Trustee John Byrne noted that in some other school boards, masks were being made mandatory for all students, not just those in Grade 4 and higher, and that some students were not coming to school because masks had not been made mandatory. His question led to a motion that all students would be required to wear a mask with reasonable exemptions, those being outlined in the board’s Return to School Plan.

Vice-chair and trustee David Morrison said he had received many comments from people about the issue, and had done much reading on the topic, including the report from SickKids, public health literature, and the request from the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario to the province’s chief medical officer of health earlier that morning that every student wear a mask.

He said that currently, health units were mandating that public wear a mask in a grocery store and other indoor public spaces, including small children over the age of two.

“And yet in schools, we’re looking at a situation where you may have 30 people in the room, and just because they’re young, we’re saying, OK, you can get by with a metre, no mask,” he said. “It seems like there’s two different sets of rules that we’re applying to all of this and for me, I think … you have to extrapolate, you know, it’s not just the classroom, it’s the community that’s attached to the classroom.”

Morrison said that in grocery stores, clerks might be in proximity with people but in many cases had a shield, a mask, greater distancing and controlled numbers of adults in the store, compared to teachers in classrooms.

“This person at the front of the room doesn’t have the luxury of all of those things. So we need to put as many layers … the whole thing works on the sum of all of the layers of protection you can put in place … I think that asking all the students, everybody that’s in our building, to wear a mask, is not an unreasonable thing just for the safety of all the people that could possibly be affected, not just in the building,” he said. “Does that create challenge, yeah, I suspect it does, but what’s not creating challenge right now? This is what we have to deal with. I can tell you there’s real concern out there from all the people I’ve heard from, and I’ve heard from a lot of people.”

Trustee Gary Brohman said it would be a learning experience but didn’t know of a downside of further mask use outside of what the province had mandated. 

“We’re recommending it, yet it’s not mandatory,” he said. “Well if you’re recommending safety, then it should be mandatory.”

He said that of the people he spoke to, they told him small kids might need numerous masks a day should they lose them, or get them wet or dirty. He wanted to ensure parents of young children could be supported in covering the cost of numerous masks a day, if needed.

Wesley Hahn, TLDSB director of education, said health and safety was the number one priority, but noted that offering PPE would escalate the expenditures considerably and would need to be a budget consideration. He said funding for additional PPE might mean the school board would have to go further into the reserves.

Superintendent Tim Ellis said the school board was ordering masks to support staff, about 2.4 masks a day per staff member, and that they had previously been planning on being prepared with a back-up mask for students in Grades 4 to 12 who did not bring their own. He said he could look into the cost of providing PPE for students in lower grades if trustees required that information to make a decision.

“The number is insignificant,” said Byrne, who said he was willing to draw down from reserves if need be. “If I can keep COVID out of the school, I’m saving a lot more money than closing down classrooms, sending kids home, whatever, because one individual had a positive COVID test.”

Questions were raised in the meeting about how to enforce the policy.

“Based on my experiences at elementary school, with children, I would say it becomes a cultural issue in the school,” said trustee Stephen Binstock. “Make it mandatory, it may not be 100 per cent the first week, but I think over a relatively short period of time, it will be adopted. And if I’ve learned anything from working with JK to [Grade] 3 students, don’t underestimate what they can do when they know it’s right.”

Another trustee commented that of the letters she had been receiving from teachers, one of the points they were making was that they wanted mandatory masks, and that she thought they would be ready to help their students wear one.

Face masks were made mandatory in businesses in Haliburton County as of July 13, according to instructions issued by the local medical officer of health through the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit.

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(TLDSB shared this graphic on their social media page on Aug. 28)

Staggered start being organized

According to the Return to School plan, “there will be a staggered start to the school year for the first two weeks for elementary students and the first week for secondary students. This gives schools the opportunity to support students as they are introduced to classroom routines, school schedules, and COVID-19 safety protocols.” The majority of parents do not yet know which day their student will start school, information that will be coming from schools when it is available.

Hahn said the board is “going to take a really close look” at plans for a staggered start, in which elementary students might stagger in to school over a two-week period along with the remote setting students, and secondary students would stagger in during the first week, beginning full-time during the second week.

“We want to make sure we’re ready,” he said. “That staff are ready, that we have the right schedules, the right pieces in place that staff can be successful when we start to do this … We are trying to make sure we don’t have to do things two or three times, we want to make sure we get it right so we don’t confuse people.”

He noted this is why it is taking time to roll finalized plans out.

“Once we finalize in the next couple of days, we will definitely make sure it’s out to the communities,” he said.

Trustee Judy Saunders asked if there was a chance the staggered start as it has been sent home might change.

“There is,” said Hahn. “We’re going to take a really good look at it. We want to be really upfront. If for some reason we need extra time, even on the elementary side, that might look different. We might shift that slightly. We don’t like to do that to parents. We know they need to know that information now. But it doesn’t help to rush that and then find out we’re not ready. We will take a close look at it. If we don’t have to change it, we won’t. But we’re going to look at it to make sure we can be ready.”

High school students to focus on one course at a time

While initially, it was planned that secondary school students in the TLDSB region would use a “quadmester” semester in which they studied two credits at a time, with two courses learned from Sept. 8 to Nov. 12 and two courses learned from Nov. 13 to Feb. 1, changes have been made following a suggestion from the Ministry of Education to reduce the number of people students are in contact with, keeping to under 100. Students will now follow a block schedule known as an “octomester,” in which they work on one course at a time.

“Courses will be scheduled for 225 minutes of teaching with the Period 1 teacher,” reads the updated Return to School plan. “A staggered 40-minute lunch as well as five to 10 minute breaks will be scheduled during this time.” The period one course will be scheduled from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, period two will be scheduled from Oct. 15 to Nov. 16, period three will be scheduled from Nov. 17 to Dec. 17 and period four will be scheduled from Dec. 18 to Feb. 1. 

While it was suggested by a trustee that many students will be affected adversely by concentrating on one subject for more than 20 days in a row, superintendent Katherine McIver said the TLDSB had already successfully run a block program during summer school and the adult and alternate education schools, and said educators would have to be attuned to student mental health but that the program could build off the success of what TLDSB had already experienced.

Virtual school being created for remote learning

Hahn said about 15 per cent of students across the TLDSB region have chosen a remote learning option, which equates to about 1,800 elementary students and just over 500 secondary students, and that the school board is essentially building a school online, with principal, vice-principal, secretarial, special education support and guidance roles. The school board is still looking at models to determine operating, whether for example the virtual elementary school might work as one unit of 1,800 or three units of 600 students. 

Students were required by the board to be registered for in-person or remote learning by Aug. 13, a deadline later extended by the board to Aug. 17. Families who have chosen the virtual learning option can request paper packages and phone check-ins from a teacher rather than using online technology.

Though Hahn said the school board will be able to offer French classes online, it cannot offer a French immersion setting, which is an option available in person in Haliburton County at Stuart Baker Elementary School.

“We’re doing our best and we’re going to work with families the best we can in those situations to offer those enhanced opportunities and work with the administrators of the remote program to work with those families,” he said.

Hahn said it has been asked if there is a significant difference in demographic of students who have chosen in-person or remote learning, and he said it has been balanced between ages and grades.

Final updates for families in the works

Hahn began his update at the meeting by noting the times are unprecedented.

“Another busy week, another busy couple of weeks … lots of change, lots of things moving rather quickly and I hate to keep using the same terms over and over but the amount of moving parts that are happening and the amount of things that we’re dealing with, with quick timelines, to get things rolling is really … it’s unlike anything I’ve seen and certainly what the team has seen.”

The school board released a Return to School plan on Aug.21, which was updated after the Aug. 25 meeting, and after the initial launch Hahn said the school board had heard “great feedback” from families about it.

“Obviously there’s still a lot of concern out there, still a lot of questions, and we continue to try to answer those questions as we move along.”

Hahn said he had met with administrators, for the first since his role began replacing previous director Larry Hope after his planned retirement this summer, and said they showed “energy and commitment to making this work and getting things ready for staff to come into the buildings.” He noted that “change is something we’ve come to expect,” but that the school board has student registrations now and can build schedules and best plan for conventional or remote learning.

Trustee Gary Brohman said he knew the “Ministry throws curves at you guys all the time,” and congratulated the team for the family and staff plan which he called an “unbelievable document,” but said families needed a firm plan, soon.

“…You’ve talked about the next couple of days, the next couple of days, well, families are going nuts,” said Brohman. “So can you give a day of next Monday, or, I know it’s always moving, but it has to end some time, for people to make arrangements … Do you think there is a final time for you?”

Hahn said that with any quick updates, TLDSB would be updating families regularly, right away, and that without further changes “we’re going to be really ready to go in the next few days,” noting that they would like to get it settled as well.

Trustees also asked questions of how bussing might work if parents are also dropping students off in school parking lots, how possible changes to ventilation and filtration systems are being planned for, and what mornings before school starts might look like at high school if students are to cohort within one class.

The updated Return to School plan with information about a staggered start, mandatory masks, school day scheduling, and COVID-19 outbreak protocol as it becomes available can be accessed on the TLDSB web site at A question and answer section is available here: 

Parents and guardians of children enrolled in TLDSB schools are asked to contact their child’s school if they have questions regarding the Return to School plan. 

As changes are being made to policy and protocol, parents have asked if they can change their registration option from in-class to virtual. A post on the Archie Stouffer Elementary School Facebook page reads: “The board has indicated that requests can be made to the school principal who will then ask the school superintendent for permission. The [superintendent] will ascertain if there is space available and give a final answer which will be communicated to the family.”

All new registrations to TLDSB schools are asked to do so prior to Sept. 8.