Masks stay on in Frontier School Division
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This article was published 25/04/2022 (398 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A northern Manitoba school division has extended its mask mandate until the end of June, citing concerns that prematurely lifting the COVID-19 measure would worsen staff and student attendance.
Frontier School Division was the sole district to temporarily continue requiring students, staff and visitors to don face coverings in classrooms after virtually all of the province’s public health mandates ended on March 15.
Last week, its board of trustees voted to keep the mask mandate intact for the remainder of the academic year.
“In some of our communities, COVID has really thrown a level of fear into communities so they’re hesitant to send their kids back,” said Reg Klassen, chief superintendent. “By dropping the mask mandate, it would be even less likely they’ll come back.”
Noting that the northern division’s pool of substitute teachers is incredibly limited, he said that keeping the public health protocol in place is also one way that administration can proactively work to limit transmission and in turn, the number of staff taking sick days because no one can cover for them.
The division, the largest geographical one of its kind in Manitoba, with K-12 classrooms everywhere from Grand Rapids to Churchill and in many First Nations, recorded one of the most significant drops in its student population early in the pandemic.
Between 2019-20 and 2020-21, enrolment dropped by 10 per cent — the equivalent of 650 students. That figure has since rebounded, but Klassen said not all registered students are attending classes on a regular basis.
On average, between 70 to 75 per cent of its approximately 6,680 students are back at school across the division daily, he said. Pre-pandemic, daily attendance was roughly 85 per cent.
Tom Schioler, president of the Frontier Teachers Association, said the decision to maintain masks for the next two months was expected.
“We want to provide the best and safest education to all our people,” Schioler said.
The general feedback from families and staff in Frontier is: “keep the masks,” Klassen said. At the same time, the division leader indicated “there is no desire to have the mask mandate in place any longer than we feel absolutely necessary.”
“I don’t know that there’s anybody that wants to keep wearing their masks. A lot of people continue wearing masks because they know that there’s a level of safety and they know that COVID is out there more so than it’s ever been before — at least that’s what we’ve been told by the experts,” he said.
The extent to which schools are being affected by positive cases remains more uncertain than ever, given Manitoba has deactivated its COVID-19 school dashboard and few districts are reporting local data.
The latest report from Lord Selkirk School Division, however, states there was a record number of weekly cases earlier this month. Between April 4 and 10, 120 cases were identified across schools in K-12 communities northeast of Winnipeg.
The division’s second highest weekly case count in 2022 was 83, around the height of the Omicron wave between Jan. 24 and 30.
In Winnipeg’s Louis Riel School Division, roughy two per cent of the K-12 population has been away daily due to COVID-19-related reasons since children returned from spring break. In mid-March, that figure was below one per cent.
Ben Thiessen, a Grade 11 student at Fort Richmond Collegiate, said no one in his social circle had contracted the virus until the most recent wave. Now, he can rattle off a list of names of people who have been sick — himself included — since the widespread loosening of all provincial mandates.
The 16-year-old spent much of his spring break recovering from a stuffy nose and headache, owing to COVID-19.
“I feel like the government went fast (in lifting restrictions), but they know what they’re doing and most kids do want to be safe so they still wear masks at school,” he said, adding he’s relieved that school feels “normal” again, with intramurals, extracurriculars and daily in-person instruction.
Some students — among them, the members of MB Students for COVID Safety — and education workers want all divisions to follow Frontier’s lead.
The end of public health orders has allowed the virus to flourish and in turn, resulted in severe school staffing shortages and rotating student absences, both of which make getting through a full curriculum impossible, according to one rural educator.
“Absenteeism is super high, both students and staff. A mask mandate in schools is in the best interest of everybody — not only health-wise, but also to continue with minimal interruptions so that we can get down to the business of education,” said the teacher, whose job requires she floats around to schools across her rural division.
“We’re putting out these tiny little fires and we’re amalgamating classes together, trying to find substitutes. Are secretaries or EAs qualified to be teaching? No, they’re just babysitting.”
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.