During last Thursday’s council meeting, there were varying opinions put forward about Dr. Mustafa Hirji’s recommendations to keep students and staff safe at school, with most councillors respecting the measures and the goals of the region’s acting chief medical officer of health.
Ron Tripp, Niagara’s CAO, reminded councillors that the decisions were made collaboratively — Tripp was also involved in discussions with the four different boards — and were based on a review of the science. An agreement about enhanced measures was formed with that input, he said. “I think we came to a place where we could all move forward and protect our kids.”
Hirji corrected one councillor who suggested Hirji had been insubordinate by not consulting with his “boss,” the provincial medical officer of health.
His only boss, Hirji clarified, is regional council.
To a criticism that he could have done a better job of communicating with councillors about the issue before it erupted in the media and took them by surprise, Hirji responded they had all received the letter that outlined his intentions, and regional chair Jim Bradley also received the letter sent by Dr. Keiran Moore, the provincial medical officer of health, which focuses on three issues: dismissal of unvaccinated students if there is a COVID case in their class, masks for Kindergarten students, and monitoring ventilation in classrooms.
Hirji explained dealing with COVID is now about managing the transition “to hopefully COVID becoming an endemic,” in a diverse province with a system of local medical officers of health making decisions based on their areas, which don’t necessarily share the same experience.
Having worked with local school boards for the last two years, he said, “I saw an opportunity to build on the good foundation of the province.”
Hirji said he looked at what the science says, and what other boards have done, and worked with Niagara school boards to be “aggressive up front to stop infections.”
He called his additional recommendations a “made-in-Niagara enhancement” of provincial guidelines.
Councillors also commented on Hirji being criticized unfairly throughout the pandemic.
When Hirji sent his letter out to parents about the additional measures on Jan. 14, “hundreds of parents across Niagara breathed a collective sigh of relief about the safety of schools, and protecting Niagara’s children,”
said St. Catharines Coun. Laura Ip.
“Let’s remember children are contracting COVID, they’re taking it home, and their parents are taking it into their workplaces and the rest of the community.”
The vast majority of parents “do not want to spin the roulette wheel that is omicron when it comes to their children’s and their family’s safety,” she said.
Pelham Coun. Diana Huson said Hirji has been targeted throughout the pandemic unfairly, for doing his job.
She told him she was sorry to see him again “dragged into social media. I think you’re doing a great job focusing on how best to protect us from a very difficult situation.”
Grimsby Coun. Wayne Fertich suggested the region should get rid of the “acting” part of Hirji’s title.
“It would send a great message to the province that we support Dr. Hirji,” he said.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero, who has supported Hirji’s pandemic measures for the last two years on occasions when other councillors did not, told The Local she continues to support what he is doing, and was surprised by the provincial response — his intention was to build on provincial restrictions. A lack of communication has been an issue in the past, however, and is key, so that councillors are not taken unaware when questioned by their constituents, she said.
“He’s starting off at a point we can all agree on, and that’s what’s best for the kids. And he’s the person who knows the epidemiology of what’s going on, and understands what’s best in the region and what we should be doing.”
She repeated what she has said in the past, that as a councillor she doesn’t have the expertise or knowledge to know what’s best, or “to call him to task.”
Every region will have its own unique issues, “and I trust what he is seeing and saying to us.”
In the past, when he has deviated from provincial regulations, it’s always to be on the side of caution, and “I would say he’s been right.”