The Trillium Lakelands District School Board (TLDSB) trustees voted Aug. 25 to mandate masks for students in Grades K-3, beyond the scope of the provincial mandate.

The motion extends beyond Grades 4-12, required by the Ministry of Education. The board will allow for reasonable exemptions as outlined in its return to school plan for families, with requests evaluated by principals.

Vice-chair David Morrison noted the Simcoe-Muskoka Health Unit has advised most children over age two wear a mask at indoor public spaces. He said there is a lot of community concern about younger students only being encouraged to wear masks, instead of mandated.

“Asking all the students – everybody that’s in our building – to wear a mask it not an unreasonable thing, just for safety,” Morrison said. “Does that create challenge? Yeah, I suspect it does. But what’s not creating challenge right now?”

School boards across the province have grappled with the idea, with other boards also going ahead with it. But there is a cost associated, even with parents providing masks.

Superintendent Tim Ellis gave a rough estimate of $400,000 to replace masks for students in those K-3 over the year, given how often they may lose or damage them.

“I’ve come to understand this would scale the cost considerably,” Director of Education Wesley Hahn said. “Health and safety are priority. We will do what we have to do.”

Hahn noted the province is allowing the board to pull $3 million from reserves to help address pandemic-related costs this year. Hahn said the cost for extra masks would have to come from that pool.

Trustee John Byrne said it is worth paying.

“If I can keep COVID out of the school, I’m saving a lot more money than closing down classrooms,” Byrne said.

Trustee Colleen Wilcox said all the letters she has received from staff want this mandate and they will be able to get students on board.

“The teachers are going to get ready,” Wilcox said.

Trustee Stephen Binstock said it may take some time, but young students will pick it up quickly.

“If I’ve learned anything from working with JK-3 students, don’t underestimate what they can do when they know it’s right.”

High school semester shift

Another significant change in back-to-school plans is secondary students learning only one credit at a time, down from the board’s planned two. Hahn said they made the change due to a Ministry of Education suggestion. He said it is to ensure students are not in contact with more than 100 people.

“That’s something we feel strongly about that we have to maintain,” Hahn said.

Byrne said it will be difficult for students to focus solely on one subject for an entire day, even if there are breaks.

“It will affect the mental wellness of a lot of people,” Byrne said.

Superintendent Katherine McIver said the board has successfully done block scheduling in summer school and adult and alternate education.

“We’ll have to attend to student well being,” McIver said. “But we also know that we can build off the success TLDSB has already experienced.”

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