Minister of Education Stephen Lecce has written to a Hamilton school board reiterating the government’s expectation that the mask mandate for students and staff be lifted on Monday, despite a decision by trustees to keep the requirement in place for an additional two weeks.

The letter sent to Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) Chair Dawn Danko on Friday comes on the heels of the board informing parents that it was moving forward with a plan to keep the mask mandate in place until April 1 in order to allow for a “transition period” following March Break.

Lecce does not explicitly say in the letter whether the board will be prohibited from setting its own policy on masks but ministry officials did tell CP24 on background that the “board has no legal authority to mandate masks” in the absence of a directive from their local public health unit.

Also, officials suggested that HWDSB's plan actually makes masking a choice, but the board wants to make it seem like it has a mandate, saying that principals can issue exemptions to anyone who completes a required form. (According to HWDSB, students not wearing a mask will be reminded of the policy and will be directed to the board's mask exemption process. It has asked parents wishing a mask exemption for their child to complete a form before Monday.)

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore also made it clear in a letter sent to several boards on Thursday that he expects them to follow the government’s guidance on masking. The entirety of that letter was also included in Lecce’s correspondence.

“We are returning to more regular and routine ways of providing in-person learning while ensuring that individuals and families can make informed choices based on their own assessment of risk,” Moore said in the letter. “There remain circumstances where mask wearing is recommended or required, and it will be very important to foster an environment that is kind, considerate and inclusive of those who choose to continue to wear a mask.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board had previously planned to keep its mask requirement in place until April 15 but at a meeting earlier this week trustees voted to lift the policy two weeks sooner than expected on April 1.

Danko later released a statement in response to Lecce’s letter, indicating that the board will proceed with its plan.

“Throughout the week, we have continued to update the Ministry about our transition plan. We appreciate the ongoing collaboration and support from the Ministry of Education and Hamilton Public Health Services,” Danko said.

“Supporting staff and families during this phased approach and time of transition is our priority. We are reminding staff and students to wear a mask until April 1 and to exercise their choice by completing the mask exemption process, if needed.”

It should be noted that HWDSB did not ask the Ontario government for permission to extend the mask mandate as some boards did.

Ministry officials have previously said that local medical officers of health could theoretically issue a Section 22 order to require masks in schools without receiving approval from the Ford government. But no such order has been issued by Hamilton's top doctor to date.

“By introducing a two-week transition period, as we implement provincial direction, we aim to mitigate challenges related to increased socialization during the March break, support students needing to request a move to remote learning and support the well-being of all students and staff as we navigate significant changes together,” Danko said in a statement released earlier this week.

Premier Doug Ford has previously warned boards against choosing to extend mandatory mask policies, remarking last week that “they aren't medical experts” and should follow provincial guidance.

However, a number of experts have questioned the Ford government’s decision to lift the mask mandate in schools just as students return from the March Break, including the Children’s Health Coalition and the Ontario Principal’s Council.

In a memo sent to parents on Thursday, the HWDSB said that by delaying the lifting of the mask requirement until April 1 the hope is that they can “mitigate the spread of COVID after March Break.”