School staff, teachers, and parents are continuing to voice frustration and concern following revelations late last month that procedural masks containing a potentially toxic material had unknowingly been distributed by the New Frontiers School Board.
The blue and grey SNN200642 masks were recalled on March 26, after Health Canada identified a potential for “early pulmonary toxicity” associated with the inhalation of nanoform graphene, which was used as a coating on the masks.
The NFSB issued a statement on March 27, guaranteeing the masks had been removed from circulation, but it did little to calm frustrations already boiling over a policy insisting government-issued procedural masks be worn in schools.
Following the recall issued by Health Canada, a total of 360 boxes of 50 of this variety of mask were found and removed from NFSB schools, centres and offices. “Every one of our buildings had at least one box of the masks,” says Rob Buttars, the director general for the board, while confirming the masks have been in circulation since as early as last summer.
“We didn’t buy them,” he says, explaining that the masks arrive by the pallet without any directive from the government to closely track the type of masks that are being distributed. The assumption was that if they were coming from the government, they were safe to be used by students, teachers and staff.
Buttars admits to feeling frustrated and disappointed by the government’s handling of the issue. “We had no communication plan,” he says, suggesting school boards and service centres were left on their own to inform employees and parents of the potentially harmful masks. “We were left with lots of questions,” he adds, noting that while no new information has been made available, the NFSB will keep its employees and parents up to date should any news come to light.
Recall is the last straw
More information can’t come soon enough for teachers, staff and students, who have been given no choice but to wear procedural masks throughout the day. For one NFSB employee, who is also mom to two teenage students attending Chateauguay Valley Regional High School in Ormstown, the situation is especially frustrating. “We can go to grocery stores and other businesses, shopping centres with hundreds of other people, ride on public transportation, attend church services in our own reusable, washable, fabric masks, but we cannot go into a school without a blue procedure mask,” she says, noting she has long been concerned about the masks being distributed in the schools.
“As a parent I am being told to ‘rest assured’ that my children will not be forced to wear a blue and grey mask. But my children will still be forced to wear a procedural mask,” she says. “This week it’s the ones with the grey interior that are recalled. A few months ago, it was the ones that had been distributed to daycare workers. Which ones will be next?”
Another NFSB teacher says she felt angry and betrayed by the government. “Why weren’t these tested before giving them to people and forcing us to wear them every day,” she says, noting that the recall has left her questioning how these particular masks made it into the schools, and the safety of procedural masks in general.
“My co-workers and I have often felt tired and constantly have headaches. It has also often felt like there was hair sticking to our face, and we have had dry eyes and throats,” she says. “We often dismissed these feelings as just being uncomfortable with wearing a mask in general or being tired.”
The Chateauguay Valley Teachers Association is communicating its members’ concerns to the school board. “The NFSB is acquiring more information on the masks they have in circulation currently, but many teachers, staff members, and parents are not assured by this, considering the nanographene masks were allowed to be used for months despite their possible health consequences,” says CVTA President Nick Ross.
The CVTA is now looking into possible class action and collective grievances against school boards who distributed these masks, at the provincial level through the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers and the Centrale des syndicats du Québec.