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Toronto-area teacher says he faced suspension without pay for wearing N95 mask in class

Three Toronto-area teachers who’ve chosen to buy and wear N95-style masks in the classroom say they’ve been threatened with disciplinary action because only board-issued — but less-protective — blue surgical masks are allowed. 

One of the teachers, who has a baby at home and works at an elementary school with students too young to be vaccinated, said he bought his own case of FN95 respirators in August to wear instead of the masks given out by the York Region District School Board. 

“The blue masks they gave us, they have visible gaps at the chin and on the sides,” he said. “So it just kind of seemed like a no-brainer, like the [mask] that’s actually going to cover your mouth and nose would be safer.”

He and two other teachers spoke to CBC News on condition of anonymity, as they’re not authorized to speak about the matter and fear reprisal.

Throughout September, the teacher said his principal and the board told him he could wear only the surgical masks provided. He initially refused, but then this month, he was informed he would be immediately suspended without pay. 

With a mortgage and family to support, the teacher said he had no choice but to reluctantly follow the board’s rules. 

“It sort of goes against ‘we’re all in this together’ and ‘your mental health is important to us,'” he said. “If we feel safer [wearing N95 masks], then who is it hurting?” 

Board says its masks meet safety requirements

The school board said in a statement that staff must wear the personal protective equipment (PPE) it supplies to ensure it meets safety requirements. Only specific staff members who are trained to do medical procedures while supporting students are provided with N95 masks.

But the board did not address questions from CBC News about the teachers’ concerns with the surgical masks it provides. It also didn’t explain why teachers could be suspended without pay for upgrading to N95 masks, while teachers who choose not to get vaccinated are allowed to continue teaching as long as they undergo rapid testing twice a week.

The board’s surgical mask rule is motivated by the desire to standardize and control PPE across schools and boards, said University of Toronto epidemiologist Colin Furness.

But Furness called the masks supplied to teachers “low-quality” and “inadequate” and said making them the maximum amount of protection teachers can wear, rather than the minimum, is “frankly witless and negligent.”

toronto area teacher says he faced suspension without pay for wearing n95 mask in class
The York Region District School Board says teachers are only allowed to wear blue surgical masks it provides, with few exceptions. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Since the start of the pandemic, the supply of N95 masks to Canada has steadily increased and they’ve become more widely available to not only health-care workers but also the public. Research suggests they are superior when compared to surgical masks at filtering out droplets infected with the novel coronavirus.

“Teachers are under a huge amount of stress, and if they want to upgrade their PPE, they should be able to do so,” Furness said. “It’s like regulating people’s underpants.”

He said a more flexible compromise would be to allow teachers to double up, wearing both their preferred mask and a board-issued mask. That would address any concerns that their N95 masks aren’t fitted properly or performing poorly, although Furness noted the surgical masks themselves already fit badly and allow air in and out where there are gaps.

Another elementary school teacher in York Region who is immunocompromised and faced similar pushback when she chose to wear a N95-style mask — like many of her students do — said she offered to wear the surgical mask on top. But she was told double-masking was also not allowed.

She ended up complying with the surgical-mask-only rule, but said the policy is “insulting.” 

Ryan Bird, a spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board, said the TDSB also requires staff to wear surgical masks, which are provided by the province.

However, he said the board is not aware of any teachers being disciplined for wearing N95 masks instead.

‘I feel invalidated’

Another York Region high school teacher said he also faced disciplinary action when he wore a KN95 mask as extra protection because he cares for an immunocompromised family member. He said he made the move because he teaches 30 teenagers in a classroom at a time who may or may not be vaccinated.

He said when he told his superiors about public health guidance and scientific studies about the effectiveness of respirators, their response was that he was likely reading “misinformation.”

Facing disciplinary action, he said he’s now wearing surgical masks at school.

“I feel invalidated, unsupported, unimportant, disrespected,” he said. “Especially compared to how teachers who want to wear superior PPE are being treated versus voluntarily unvaccinated teachers.” 

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation said it advocates for stronger safety measures in all schools and encourages members to contact their union representative if they have concerns about the PPE provided.

“We applaud those school boards who are allowing staff to wear superior face masks and call on other boards to follow suit,” said OSSTF president Karen Littlewood in a statement.

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