Staff at special education schools to don N95 masks as part of TDSB, Sick Kids pilot

Staff who work in Toronto schools serving students with complex medical needs — who continue to attend in-person classes despite a wider shutdown — will be outfitted with N95 masks as part of a pilot project.

Working with Sick Kids Hospital, the Toronto District School Board says it is developing a process to identify which employees might benefit from wearing N95 masks at three initial sites.

N95s, also known as respirator masks, provide a very tight facial fit and the ability to filter airborne particles.

Many students at these congregated schools are unable to wear masks, and staff have expressed concerns about safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The three sites are Sunny View Junior and Senior Public School, Park Lane Public School and Lucy McCormick Senior School.

A statement from Ryan Bird, a TDSB spokesperson, said the masks will be sent to staff who work closely with children who may produce aerosols such as droplets, such as educational assistants who work with kids that use a tracheostomy tube.

“Once these three schools have been provided with the N95 masks, the masks will be offered to the other nine congregated special education schools who have staff that meet the criteria,” Bird said.

In a statement to the Star, John Weatherup, president of Toronto Education Workers CUPE Local 4400, said the additional measures are a good start.

“Better controls, including PPE for CUPE 4400 members, are always welcome, since they end up protecting everyone in school and in the community,” Weatherup said. “We’ve been advocating for better control measures since early in the school year and we support TDSB’s initiative with Sick Kids. As part of a strategic plan with other control measures, we are looking forward to seeing this implemented.”

Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said “workers need and deserve the PPE that will protect them, the students they support, their colleagues and families.”

She said “we applaud TDSB and Sick Kids for this plan and we’d like to see similar protocols roll out across the province. The Ministry of Education should take note,” Walton said.

TDSB will be following guidelines developed by Sick Kids, which is arranging for staff to make sure their masks fit properly with the help of Safehaven, a non-profit that provides residential and respite care to people with complex care needs.

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist who has previously been outspoken on the importance of following proper safety protocols in order to maximize the effectiveness of masks, said the initiative raises the question of what else the TDSB is doing to ensure classrooms are safe learning environments.

He said N95 masks are “very effective” when used properly, but more uncomfortable than a regular cloth mask.

On Jan. 25, support staff members at Beverley School began the process of work refusal due to COVID-19 concerns.

This story was first published by Omar Mosleh on The Toronto Star.