Science table won’t make formal recommendation on masking in schools, citing ‘lack of consensus’

Ontario’s Science Advisory Table will not make a formal recommendation on if and when to reintroduce mandatory masking in schools due to what it says is a “lack of consensus” on the topic.

The Ford government lifted the mask mandate in most settings, including schools, in March and has for far refused to entertain hypothetical questions around whether it could be revived amid a resurgence of COVID-19 infections.

In a new report released on Thursday, members of the science table said that “mask-wearing is likely the easiest temporary measure to implement if required to support ongoing school operations.”

However, they did not provide specific recommendations on when it might make sense to do so.

“Based on the currently available evidence, there was a lack of consensus among coauthors as to if and when masking should be mandated,” the report states. “Studies have shown that schools with mask mandates, along with other health and safety measures, have been associated with a lower incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection compared to schools without mask mandates. This supports that masking along with other measures may reduce transmission within schools, but the isolated effect of masking is difficult to determine.”

The 2022 fall semester would be the first full term since the onset of the pandemic, where students will not be required to wear masks in public schools.

In its report, the science table said that “schools should still be mask-friendly environments” regardless of whether or not there is a mandate.

It also noted that there has been “no evidence of negative cognitive impacts” arising from mandatory mask policies in schools but said that studies looking at the psychological, communicative and dermatologic impacts have had “varying results.”

“Consequently, it will be prudent to continue to evaluate and assess the impact of mask-wearing so as to be able to make strong, evidence-informed decisions based on risks versus benefits going forward,” the report states.

Level of viral activity mostly unchanged from week prior

The report from the science table comes as the Ministry of Health releases new COVID-19 data, which shows that most public health indicators are unchanged from one week prior.

The positivity rate over the last seven days was 13.22 per cent, compared to 13.54 per cent at this time last week.

COVID-19 hospitalizations, meanwhile, were up to 1,354 from 1,328 one week prior.

In its report, the science table said that it does not anticipate the need for any temporary public health measures in schools at the outset of the academic year due to the “broad uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, increasing natural immunity and the significant reduction in disease severity they have afforded.”

It said that cohorting could be reintroduced in classrooms but would “likely only be warranted if there is a major surge in communicable illness with significant health impacts to children.”

Likewise, the table says that a return of physical distancing could be a “useful temporary measure” but only for certain age groups.

“Among younger children, recognizing that social interaction is central to child development and should be encouraged, cohorting and masking are strategies that should be prioritized over physical distancing to allow for interactions. For older students, masking and distancing are preferred strategies to cohorting because of the latter’s adverse impact on schooling, social interactions, sports and extra-curricular activities,” the report states.