Removal of mask mandate in schools ‘heartbreaking’ for some

The province’s promise of a “near normal” 2021-22 school year was welcomed this week by many Manitobans who have long missed seeing children's smiles during a year of strict rules over masking, sanitizing and physical distancing.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/08/2021 (426 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The province’s promise of a “near normal” 2021-22 school year was welcomed this week by many Manitobans who have long missed seeing children’s smiles during a year of strict rules over masking, sanitizing and physical distancing.

Leigh Phillips was not among them.

In fact, the father of two describes the back-to-school plan — and in particular, the loosening of the mask mandate — as “heartbreaking.”

ALEX LUPUL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Leigh Phillips, with his son Keenan, says this plan "completely excludes anybody with health conditions."

“It just makes me feel like the adults are starting to fail the kids,” said Phillips, who lives in Winnipeg with his wife and their children; their oldest, a 10-year-old, misses both his friends and in-person support from teachers, but his immunocompromised status complicates returning to the classroom.

“(This plan) completely excludes anybody with health conditions. The thing with cystic fibrosis is that it’s a respiratory thing. If a regular cold puts my son in the hospital, (COVID-19) could kill him.”

Manitoba rolls back pandemic restrictions for back to school

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS One of the classrooms that has been downsized to accommodate 16 students at Andrew Mynarski V.C. School on Wednesday. Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Reporter:

Posted:

Manitoba is boasting a back-to-school season that will be “near normal” for all students and educators, including those who are unvaccinated by choice or for eligibility reasons, with a significant rollback of mandated public health protocols.

Masks will be recommended, rather than required in schools as of Sept. 7. Cohorting of groups of no more than 75 will only be obligatory among students who are in Grade 6 or younger, since those pupils are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. As for physical distancing, schools are expected to “encourage” it to the greatest extent possible.

“After 18 months of facing the global impacts of COVID-19 together, Manitoba is on the road to reopening, including our schools operating near normal,” said Education Minister Cliff Cullen, who was flanked by the province’s top doctor during a news conference Thursday.

Cullen said all students will be in class full-time, except for elementary students who have compromised immune systems or live with someone who is at-risk and require distance education support through the province’s remote learning hub.

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Manitoba’s in-class learning plan emphasizes recommendations rather than requirements — which the province’s top doctor has attributed to low community transmission and high vaccine uptake, while indicating such action is necessary to move toward a post-pandemic life. (Notably, children have also experienced far fewer severe outcomes related to COVID-19 in comparison with older populations, although deaths among young people have been recorded in the province.)

Masks will be “strongly” encouraged, physical distancing promoted where possible, and cohorting of up to 75 people in a group will only occur in elementary classrooms to limit close contacts. Meantime, vaccinations will not be required for school staff or eligible students to attend classes.

“We think we can provide safe school settings with these recommendations in place. We will not stand in the way if school divisions want to take additional measures in regards to some of the recommendations,” said Education Minister Cliff Cullen, during a news conference held alongside Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, on Thursday.

For guardians and teachers of students who cannot yet get a COVID-19 vaccine, as well as young learners themselves, the relaxed rules raise anxiety levels. At the same time, parents — the Phillips family included — want their children to reap the benefits of in-person learning, after a year that consisted of isolation periods, challenges related to motivation and mental health, and remote learning glitches.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Education Minister Cliff Cullen said all students will be in class full-time, except for elementary students who have compromised immune systems or live with someone who is at-risk and require distance education support through the province’s remote learning hub.

Geneviève Sprenger, a Grade 1-2 teacher and mother of two school-aged children who are younger than 12, said Friday she will continue wearing a mask at work and ask her students’ parents to pack face coverings before they send their kids to class.

“Children have sacrificed a lot over the last 18 months and here’s a shot for us to give them a normal year,” said Sprenger. “As (children under 12) are unvaccinated, taking away the masks is just taking away another layer of protection that could potentially keep them safe.”

The Winnipeg teacher said she feels mask use is critical to limit self-isolation stints, minimize remote learning and ensure children can socialize safely — in spite of their ineligibility for vaccines, a looming fourth wave and the threat of the Delta variant.

As far as Andrew Halayko — a professor at the University of Manitoba who studies chronic lung diseases in children — is concerned, a more sensible strategy would be to continue requiring masks at the start of the school year and reassess it at the end of September.

“For the vast majority of kids, wearing a mask in school is not a problem. In fact, we slip them on now without even thinking about it,” said Halayko, a Canada Research Chair in chronic lung disease pathobiology and treatment.

“For the vast majority of kids, wearing a mask in school is not a problem. In fact, we slip them on now without even thinking about it.” – Andrew Halayko, a Canada Research Chair in chronic lung disease pathobiology and treatment

Last fall, a study from the University of Saskatchewan found that healthy individuals’ oxygen levels are not affected when wearing a mask, even during strenuous workouts — despite anti-maskers’ unbacked claims that face coverings are a serious impediment to breathing.

Halayko said he is hopeful school divisions and schools will now take the torch and inform families about the importance and value of wearing masks.

Not only do masks protect all community members, but they are also a much more affordable option to prevent the spread of aerosols than massive upgrades to ventilation, he added.

Earlier this week, a provincial education official told reporters schools have been asked to assess their ventilation systems and make upgrades where needed. The back-to-school plan also highlights the importance of ongoing cleaning and sanitizing.

Father Curtis Wiebe, who has purchased N95-masks designed for children for the first day of school, said he wants to hear more about school plans to address ventilation, given COVID-19 primarily spreads via aerosol transmission.

“Even if our children are OK or most of our children are OK, I think we still need to look out for those who are immunocompromised. Show some love to your neighbour.” Curtis Wiebe

“I don’t understand this stubbornness of our provincial health officials in refusing to admit that COVID is airborne,” said Wiebe, a father of three children, two of which attend elementary school in Hanover.

Wiebe is also frustrated by the low vaccination uptake in his community; as of Friday, approximately 45 per cent of eligible residents in Hanover had received one dose and only 38 per cent of the population that is aged 12 and older is fully immunized against the virus.

“Even if our children are OK or most of our children are OK, I think we still need to look out for those who are immunocompromised. Show some love to your neighbour,” said Wiebe, who identifies as a proud Christian.

“If the vaccination rates were higher, I’d be very much in favour of losing the (school) mask mandates.”

The province only required staff and students in Grade 4 and up to wear masks in 2020-21, but the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, among others, has advocated for a universal mask mandate in schools for all staff and students for months to address concerns about highly infectious variants.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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