Ontario 2022 elections: Parents worry about voters exposed at school polling stations

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An Ottawa parent concerned about COVID-19 safety has started a petition requesting that a PA day be rescheduled so students are not exposed to unmasked, unvaccinated voters at school polling stations.

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During the Provincial Council elections on June 2, dozens of schools are spread across the city of polling stations.

That poses a risk to students, said Christine Guptill, a professor of occupational therapy at the University of Ottawa and mother of two.

Children in primary schools, in particular, are not well protected by vaccines, she said. Those under the age of five are not eligible for the injection, and the percentage of complete vaccination for children aged five to 11 is not high.

Guptill’s petition is addressed to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. It calls for the primary school PA day to be changed from June 3 to June 2 so that no students are in school on Election Day.

The board is in an unusual situation.

The province lifted the requirement to wear masks in most indoor areas on March 21, but in April the Ottawa-Carleton administration passed its own resolution requiring students, staff and visitors to wear masks in its buildings.

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Guptill said she does not expect the school board to enforce its mask requirement on voters arriving at schools on Election Day. “That would only create conflict. We cannot expect (clients) to enforce it. They are not police officers.

“And given the whole occupation and the truck convoy, how do you think that would go?” she said, referring to protests held in Ottawa this winter against public health measures protecting against the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing a mask.

The easiest solution is to move the primary school board PA day to Election Day, she said. (High schools have their PA day at the end of June.)

That has been done at The Peel District School Board and the Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board, who have shifted their elementary PA days from June 6 to June 2.

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“This decision will reduce students’ contact with voters who attend our primary schools to vote,” the Peel board said in a statement. “We thank you for your understanding as we continue to prioritize the safety and well-being of our school communities.”

The York Area District School Board had already scheduled its Elementary PA Day for June 2 this year because it was known in advance that Election Day would be, a spokesman said.

In Ottawa, all four school boards will host polling stations.

The Ottawa-Carleton board will have polling stations at 60 schools, spokesman Darcy Knoll said.

“Provincial law requires schools to allow the use of polling stations, if requested,” he said in a statement.

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Will the board oblige voters to wear face masks in schools? That’s not clear. It looks like voters will get mixed messages: one from the school board and another from Elections Ontario.

“We have reached out to Elections Ontario to clarify their plans for today and to inform them of the mask mandate currently in effect on our premises,” Knoll said. “We know that the responsibility for bringing the public together during this voting process is the responsibility of the Elections Ontario staff and we will support all efforts to ensure a safe and efficient election experience for all involved.”

Schools have posted signs demanding the board wear masks, Knoll said.

“Elections Ontario will put up the necessary signage regarding the elections,” he said.

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Elections Canada said in a statement that in line with the provincial lifting of mask mandates in most indoor environments on March 21, it does not require polling station members or voters to wear masks while working or voting.

Elections Ontario said the health and safety of voters and staff is a priority, and it has followed recommendations from the office of the province’s chief medical officer of health on how to conduct safe in-person voting.

“At the same time, we have a responsibility to strike a balance between preparing for an election during a pandemic and ensuring that anyone who wants to vote can do so, as is their democratic right.”

The Ottawa Catholic School Board said it plans to have polling stations in 51 schools. The PA day for that board is also June 3.

Ottawa’s French public school board said it was required to accept requests from polling stations.

“Schools will remain open (on Election Day) and, as always, security measures are being taken to ensure everyone’s safety,” the statement said. “Parents who are concerned can contact their child’s school.”

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