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Study in contrast

Manitoba’s largest universities have different takes on masks

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Manitoba’s two largest universities have taken divergent approaches to masking and the consequences are on full display, as two starkly different campuses began the first full week of the fall term.

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Manitoba’s two largest universities have taken divergent approaches to masking and the consequences are on full display, as two starkly different campuses began the first full week of the fall term.

Crowds of masked students gathered to attend lectures and labs at the University of Manitoba’s bustling Fort Garry campus early Monday. Many visitors to the school — an outlier because it continues to require personal protective gear to be worn indoors — also wore their masks outside.

Downtown, face coverings were few and far between across the University of Winnipeg.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Anna Osmond welcomes the shift from mandatory to “highly recommended” masks on campus.

“University is a new start for me,” said Anna Osmond, 18, who is studying environmental sciences. “It’s nice to have that new start with the end of COVID (protocols) all coming together, as one big, fresh new start.”

Osmond welcomes the shift from mandatory to “highly recommended” masks on campus because she can hear teachers’ voices clearly, see others’ faces, and she no longer has to worry about sore ears.

The overwhelming majority of her peers are choosing to do without face coverings, she said, adding she might think twice about her choice if that was not the case.

Mask uptake has been dwindling since March 15, when the provincial government ended its indoor mask mandate in public spaces. Recommendations have largely replaced requirements in areas across society, except hospitals and other health-care facilities.

Two months ago, U of M announced it would leave its mask mandate intact, citing emerging discussions about preparations for possible surges of COVID-19 in the fall.

The research-intensive school, with an enrolment that exceeds 30,000 students, is the only major university or college in Manitoba to maintain a strict policy. Pupils are expected to wear high-quality and well-fitted masks.

Other institutions have eased protocols in line with the province’s relaxed guidelines, a political emphasis on individual decision-making, and high vaccine uptake across society. None requires students to be immunized against the virus to attend face-to-face learning — a policy many adopted in a united announcement made last year.

Laura Forsythe recently took to social media to share two orientation photos, one of which displayed auditorium bleachers packed with unmasked learners at her school and another that showed a group of roughly 70 masked U of M students.

“Language matters and protects our students,” wrote the U of W lecturer, who is strictly teaching remote courses this year due to medical accommodation in her immediate family, in her post.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

U of M student Ky Ly said he plans to wear a face covering everywhere but in his home on an indefinite basis.

U of W indicated it received feedback supporting an adjustment to its mask policy after polling union leadership, students, deans and directors, and others throughout the summer.

In a release last month, president Todd Mondor indicated the university will modify restrictions, as needed, and requested the community to “exhibit compassion with respect to an individual’s choice regarding masking.”

Forsythe said her frustration is that messaging, “endangers those who have no choice.”

“It’s not a personal preference for many. It is medically required, to keep themselves or their loved ones alive,” she said.

Forsythe, who teaches in the faculty of education, said she has unsuccessfully lobbied for the school to allow mandates to occur in individual classrooms where an instructor or single learner requires a mask because of a medical accommodation and discloses that.

U of M student Ky Ly said he plans to wear a face covering everywhere but in his home on an indefinite basis. “I want to protect my parents, first — that’s the main reason why, and also the people around me: friends, family, and my girlfriend,” said the statistics student.

Ly, 22, said he believes individuals should be able to choose what to do at this stage in the pandemic.

Psychology student Nthabiseng Peters said Monday she understands why her school has taken a cautionary approach, but wonders how effective the mandate will be if students do not have to mask at their jobs, on public transit, and other areas in the city.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Nthabiseng Peters said many students were shocked to learn about the mandate when they first arrived on campus, following a summer of activities during which masks were optional.

The 19-year-old added many students were shocked to learn about the mandate when they first arrived on campus, following a summer of activities during which masks were optional.

The patchwork of policies creates confusion and uncertainty and for some, and can lead to anxiety, said health behaviour sociologist Christopher Fries.

The associate professor and researcher at U of M suggested the province introduce a blanket policy for indoor masking based on the latest research and pandemic scenario — not unlike Manitoba’s public health laws on smoking. In its absence, vulnerable people are set up to be ostracized and victimized, Fries said.

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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