The Toronto District School Board says it will lift masking requirements and other COVID-19 protective measures in its schools but will ask the province if it can be given more time to implement these changes.

The TDSB held a special board meeting Thursday evening to review its COVID-19 policies and procedures after the Ontario government announced the day before that the mask mandate will no longer be in effect for most settings, including schools, as of March 21.

The board said that while it will implement the changes announced by the province, it will also be sending a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce, Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore and Toronto Public Health, requesting them to "consider the COVID-19 situation in Toronto, and allow the TDSB additional time to approach the removal of protections within schools that mitigate risk as per Dr. Moore's direction 'cautiously and gradually' that would culminate with the removal of TDSB's Masking Procedure after March 21, 2022."

TDSB trustees voted in favour of writing the letter, which will also request that Moore provide additional direction regarding masking to protect vulnerable staff and students, including children in congregate settings.

"Should that request be approved, the changes to COVID-19 measures and timelines may be adjusted. We would then share an update with the TDSB community as soon as possible," the board said in a statement.

The TDSB is requesting officials to give a reply by March 16.

"I understand where the province is going. I understand that we need to learn to manage COVID and live with COVID. I understand that there are important measures we need to start having in our schools," said Trustee Rachel Chernos Lin, who moved the motion to write the open letter. "But I also think we need families to come along with us and feel safe. And we need staff to feel safe in making these changes."

"It is to ask the province really to consider whether we could have a little bit more time to have a more gradual approach to all of these measures that will be changing. It's not to turn back the clock. It's not to not do any of these things, but it's to do it with a little bit more gradual easing into it over the next few weeks," she added.

The move to end mask mandates has drawn criticism from a number of groups who have expressed concerns about the potential for it to hasten the spread of COVID-19.

Several TDSB trustees expressed their disappointment with the abrupt change, with one trustee calling the move "irresponsible."

"I am not at all in support of the Ontario medical officer of health's decision to remove the masking mandate in our schools," said Trustee Chris Moise.

"I can say to you that in my ward, we have many marginalized communities, and people are afraid and concerned for the safety of their children. I know some of our staff are also. And I feel that our hands are tied."

On Thursday morning at Queen's Park, Lecce was pressed on whether local school boards and public health units could choose to continue to mandate masks on their own but seemed to suggest that the final decision will rest with Dr. Moore.

Toronto's medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, also told CP24 earlier in the day that the decision on masking in schools is in "the purview of the province."

"The province has after two years of great difficultly for our children taken a cautious approach to move forward and we are doing that with the full support of the chief medical officer of health, who has done his due diligence and consulted widely with medical officers of health," Lecce said at Queen's Park. "If a local community wants to do that (mandate masking in schools), they should continue the dialogue with him."

The Ontario Principals' Council released a statement on Thursday urging the province to reconsider lifting the mask mandate in schools, arguing that the decision to do so just as students return from March Break "does not appear to be grounded in the science" and could "jeopardize the safety of students, staff and our school communities."

But Lecce defended the decision while speaking with reporters, noting that we are now "at a point where we can move forward with caution" thanks to high vaccination rates and investments that have been made in air filtration in schools.

He then reiterated that "if a public health unit wants to consider an elevated measure they can consult with the chief medical officer of health."

However, Ministry of Education officials have subsequently clarified that local medical officers of health do retain the ability to issue an order under Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act which would effectively mandate masks in schools in their community. They say that prior to doing so, they would typically consult with Ontario's chief medical officer of health but are not required by law to do so.

One school board is defying the province in regards to masking. During a special board meeting Thursday, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board trustees voted to keep masks in place for students and staff until April 15.

Meanwhile, a number of school boards, including the Peel District School Board and Halton District School Board, have already announced plans to bring an end to mandatory masking in schools as of March 21. The Halton District School board has also said that masks will no longer be required on student transportation after March 21.

At least one post-secondary institution has announced plans to keep its mask mandate in place for now.

In a statement issued on Thursday, the University of Waterloo said that masks would continue to be mandatory on its campus until the end of the winter term in order to "minimize the potential for disruption to the end of the term schedule and exams."