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Niagara proceeding with stronger school measures after disagreement with Moore

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The head of a public health unit in southern Ontario will go ahead with stronger COVID-19 measures in local schools, despite censure from the province's top doctor over breaking from the provincial approach.

Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, said he was concerned with Dr. Mustafa Hirji's plans for schools in the Niagara Region – which involve stricter rules around virus-related dismissals, masks and air filtration – because he said they happened without provincial consultation and could lead to greater rates of student absenteeism.

But Hirji said Thursday that his health unit would go ahead with the measures, which he said were built on "the solid foundation set by the province." 

"We appreciate the feedback of the Chief Medical Officer of Health regarding these measures," Hirji said in an emailed statement. 

"We have adapted some of the details of how our recommended measures will be implemented in consideration of the easing workload on our school boards, but will be proceeding with these measures in order to give children, teachers, and other school staff additional protection."

Moore had written to Hirji outlining his issues with the region's plans earlier this month. 

When asked about his letter on Thursday, Moore said he wants a provincewide approach to schools, which reopened this week after a period of remote learning to deal with spiking virus cases.

"What I'm trying to have across Ontario is a consistent and persistent approach so that parents, school boards, families can expect the same level of protection and care," Moore said at a news conference.

Moore also noted that he found it unusual for public health physicians to get involved in policies that affect workplaces, and said he wanted to get clarity from Hirji on the move.

Throughout the pandemic, however, medical officers of health have at times introduced stricter COVID-19 rules affecting workplaces, businesses and schools than those in place provincewide – including Moore when he was the Kingston area's medical officer of health.

During a wave of infections last spring, medical officers in Toronto and Peel Region decided to close schools to in-person learning before the province announced a similar move.

And in recent months, both Premier Doug Ford and Moore have said publicly that local public health units can and should take their own measures to deal with the pandemic if the regional situation calls for it. 

Public health in Niagara Region declined to share copies of Hirji’s original memos outlining the specific pandemic measures for schools, saying details were still being finalized as of Thursday.

But a copy of Moore’s Jan. 15 letter to Hirji outlined several of the region's plans, including a direction to monitor carbon dioxide levels in all classrooms and install HEPA filters in rooms that read over a certain level.

Moore's letter said the province isn't aware of a correlation between CO2 levels and virus transmission and raised concern about the financial costs of that requirement. 

He also questioned a plan to dismiss class cohorts for seven days in some cases, which is longer than the five-day isolation recommended by the province for people infected with COVID-19.

Moore wrote that the plan could have negative impacts on the well-being of children and their families.

He also expressed concern over plans to ask for medical exemptions to the mask requirement in schools and took issue with Hirji moving forward with the measures without consulting the labour or education ministries.

The disagreement between Moore and Hirji comes to light at a time when Ontario schools now provide little information on COVID-19 cases due to changes in testing policy that has made PCR tests less accessible.

The province isn't sharing data on COVID-19 cases in schools but says it will start reporting absence rates next week – though it won't say whether absences were virus-related.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Hirji should be thanked for taking more measures than the province is on schools and criticized Moore for writing his letter.

"The Ford government kept saying they've done everything they can. That's not true. I think Dr. Hirji is demonstrating that that's not true," she said.

"It is shameful to see someone stepping up to the plate with some leadership around making things safer to be backhanded by the government of the day and the chief medical officer of health."

Three NDP legislators representing the region also issued a joint statement in support of Hirji. Jennie Stevens, Jeff Burch, and Wayne Gates along with candidate Dave Augustyn said Moore's letter "has Ford’s fingerprints all over it" and said Niagara was doing the right thing.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2022.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press