York public school board threatens to suspend teacher who wore respirator instead of blue surgical mask in class
A man holds a 3M N95 respirator before an announcement at a facility in Brockville, Ont., Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Published Thursday, October 14, 2021 9:39AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, October 14, 2021 9:39AM EDT
Administrators at one GTA school board have threatened to discipline teachers if they wear respirator masks in the classroom, telling them to wear provincially-procured blue surgical masks instead.
Three teachers with the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) described being pulled aside by administrators and questioned about wearing respirator masks, with one pulled into a meeting with his union representatives and another threatened with a one-day suspension without pay.
Each of the teachers spoke to CP24 on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about what was happening in the schools and fear professional punishment.
All three educators said they paid for the respirator masks out of their own pockets.
Each of them said that when they were first confronted by an administrator, they offered to put a board-supplied surgical mask over their respirator mask as a compromise, and were told not to.
In one instance, a teacher at the board said they were repeatedly told to wear a blue surgical mask instead of the respirator masks they bought themselves.
Earlier this month when they refused to comply, the teacher received a letter informing them they would be suspended without pay.
“We discussed that the PPE (personal protective equipment) you were wearing, specifically your mask, was not in accordance with Board requirements as it was your own,” the letter obtained by CP24 read.
“You indicated that you were not going to comply with the Board’s direction. Accordingly, you are being sent home for the remainder of the day without pay.”
The letter said that in order for the teacher to return to work, they would have to wear a surgical mask instead of the respirator masks they purchased themselves.
The teacher said they received the suspension letter too late in the school day to actually go home. The next week, the teacher said they complied, grudgingly, and wore a blue surgical mask.
A second teacher said that they even offered administrators to wear two surgical masks at on top of one another instead of a respirator mask, but school administrators refused the request, citing an internal school board policy document CP24 has also obtained that stated double masking would “lead to a greater risk of contamination from having to adjust the mask more frequently.”
YRDSB spokesperson Miguelo Licino confirmed the board is prepared to employ “progressive steps” to ensure all teachers wear surgical masks at schools.
“For their health and safety and that of other staff and students all staff members are expected to wear the provided personal protective equipment as required by regulating authorities (in our case, the provincial government),” he told CP24. “The Board may employ progressive steps to ensure compliance with this and other provincial requirements to ensure the safety of everyone in our schools and classrooms.”
He also said a select few education workers who “undertakeaerosol generating medical procedures (AGMPs) while supporting students” are supplied with N95 respirator masks.
In the London, Ont. area, the local public English school board says it lets teachers use any PPE they wish to purchase themselves.
“We have been allowing our staff to us their own PPE as long as it meets or exceeds the standards of the items that are provided by the board,” Thames Valley District School Board spokesperson Cheryl Weedmark told CP24. “This has been the case since Sept. 8.”
All three teachers CP24 spoke to at the YRDSB said they were puzzled that the board would waste time and effort policing mask quality, when all each one of them was trying to do was ensure the maximum reduction in risk to everyone in the classroom.
When asked whether the Ministry of Education is enforcing a surgical-mask-only policy at schools, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce’s spokesperson did not answer the question, only saying the government was committed to providing schools with PPE.
“Ontario has made high quality three-ply masks available for students and a full-complement of PPE, including surgical grade masks, goggles, gloves, and face shields. Local public health units have the authority to implement additional masking measures if local indicators require it,” she said.
A third teacher who spoke to CP24 said they even consulted a doctor for a medical note to support using a respirator mask at school, and pursued the issue with the Board’s disability accommodation policy, and was still told no.
Respirator masks use melt-blown fibres to filter out or diffuse between 94 to 99 per cent of all airborne particles they encounter.
They are typically disposed of after six to eight hours of use.
There is significant confusion about this issue among educators in the province, and the rules appear to be different in other regions of Ontario.
Each of the teachers CP24 spoke to had a variety of reasons for using better quality masks at school, and each said they had done extensive research in medical journals documenting the reduction of risk of infection, even if already fully vaccinated, associated with using respirator masks.
Employees of other public organizations in Ontario have also struggled to get permission to use respirator masks. The province’s nurses have twice had to go to court to argue for unfettered access to N95 respirators.
Last month, a Superior Court judge sided with the Ontario government in a case where the Ontario Nurses’ Association argued not automatically granting N95 respirator masks to its members during shifts in hospitals and long-term care homes was a violation of nurses’ Charter rights.