Ontario’s third largest teachers’ union is calling on the Ford government to reinstitute mandatory masking in schools, saying that it’s needed to keep schools from shutting down due to teacher absences and rising case counts among students.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) says it is asking the province to undo the decision to end masking in all schools on March 21 because teacher and student absences due to COVID-19 are causing “whiplash disruptions to the learning environment.”

“COVID-19 is not over. Teacher and education worker absences related to COVID-19 are going unfilled at an unprecedented rate,” OECTA President Barb Dobrowolski said Friday.

“The number of children being admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms is spiking. As per data from the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, case counts are skyrocketing, with COVID-19 wastewater measurements indicating that the province is now seeing more than 100,000 cases a day.”

Dobrowolski says the union told the Ford government the March 21 date for ending mandatory masking was too early, especially because of the possible compounding effects of international travel and private gatherings that occur over March Break.

The province does not report how many teachers and staff contract COVID-19 as it did during 2020 and 2021. It also does not require public health units to dismiss classes in the event of exposure or even notify parents of exposures in all cases.

Instead, it publishes rates of absence across schools, though not all schools submit data each day.

On Thursday, the Toronto Catholic District School Board reported a 10.2 per cent absence rate among schools that reported, while the Toronto District School Board reported a 14.7 per cent absence rate.

The Toronto Catholic District Board is one of a few boards that continues to document all cases, primarily through voluntary at-home rapid antigen testing.

It reported 105 new cases of COVID-19 in its schools on Thursday, up from 100 a week earlier and 36 two weeks earlier. 

A single Catholic elementary school in Port Union has reported more than 100 cases over the past two weeks and does not need to close under the current rules.

A school board trustee in London, Ont. said her board has to fill 400 staff absences per day, mostly due to COVID-19.

That board, the Thames Valley District School Board, said two of its schools would shut down and return to virtual-only learning on Friday due to “staffing issues.”

For its part, the Ford government has said it wants people to have a choice whether they wear a mask or not, and Premier Doug Ford dismissed the recent ongoing increase in COVID-19 transmission province-wide as “a little spike.”