• Tue. Dec 5th, 2023

Health Administration

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Abray: Unmasking an attack on democracy at the Ottawa public school board

Administrators at the OCDSB wilfully ignored the trustees’ explicit direction and authority on masks in the schools. That’s not OK.

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School boards are often characterized as the political junior leagues, a motley collection of local gadflies and aspiring politicians. Too often, school board trustees are the neglected elected, mostly anonymous names that the majority of municipal electors tend to ignore. But voters are not the only ones doing the ignoring. As this week’s meeting of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) made clear, the board administration is engaged in an ongoing exercise of amnesia, conveniently forgetting that the board trustees are its elected masters.

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It’s been a rough few years for municipal management in this city, its reputation in tatters over a dysfunctional LRT, two years of COVID, an occupation, and the slow, nearly information-free storm recovery. It seems the people in charge in Ottawa don’t actually want to be in charge. And that leaves residents, swimming in a pool of obfuscation, hoping we don’t catch COVID-19 (again?). But, after Tuesday’s baffling non-performance by OCDSB trustees, more COVID appears to be in the cards.

On April 12, at the height of the latest surge in COVID-19 cases, the trustees passed a motion wisely establishing a mandatory masking policy. The policy was to remain in place until Ottawa Public Health gave clear and explicit instruction that the mandate could safely end. But last Friday, the director of education announced that the policy was being revoked, effective immediately. It was done without notice or consultation, nor even a deferential check-in with the democratically elected body that ordered the mandate. And the trustees appear to be OK with that. But they shouldn’t be.

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The high-minded reason the board should not be complacent about the administration casually usurping its authority is because it’s fundamentally undemocratic. We need governments because, as a society, we can’t always agree on how to solve important problems. We need a mechanism to weigh the options, ask questions and, ultimately, make decisions. COVID and the public health measures we use to fight it are contentious. Democratic systems help us bridge our disagreements and move forward.

Local governing bodies, however, are becoming more and more risk-averse. They appear to abhor debate, dislike discord — the very things government was created to help resolve. If they can dodge a decision and leave it to another level of government, another organization, or (even better) to the whim of fate, they seem increasingly inclined to do so. But that’s not OK. Democratic governments are, ultimately, accountable. They should always strive toward justice, trying to do the right thing to help the most people and ensure that the most marginalized and vulnerable are given the greatest consideration along the way.

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But there is a more straightforward reason the board should be unhappy: the administration wilfully ignored the trustees’ explicit direction and authority. The April 12 decision allows for a change in the masking policy if Ottawa Public Health (OPH) explicitly directs that it is no longer needed. That didn’t happen. In fact, this past Sunday, OPH reiterated its longstanding position on masking: it strongly recommends the wearing of masks in shared indoor spaces. In a public meeting, the administrators literally shrugged and suggested that a new direction had been “implied.” That’s not good enough.

The April 12 decision contributed to a steady decline in case numbers in Ottawa, for the moment. It was a prudent policy choice made by a duly elected board. It’s casual removal by staff, against the stated wishes of the board, is terrible, anti-democratic governance. And bad policy.

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Don’t take my word for it. My 15-year-old daughter was incensed. “What the hell, Dad? Keeping masks is the right decision. It’s obvious. Why are adults having such a hard time doing the right thing?”

Great question. Why are the adults having a hard time with this? The masking policy was a simple, effective means of increasing the safety of our schools. Kudos to the trustees for passing it. Now, instead of being pushed around by their employees, they should defend their right to govern, and insist that the administration reinstate the policy.

Tim Abray is a long-time communications consultant and doctoral candidate in politics. 

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