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Face masks mandatory for Manitoba grades 4 to 12, province says

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Following parental outcry about the safety of their children returning to school amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, Manitoba is mandating the use of face masks for older students when physical distancing isn't possible.

"Out of an abundance of caution, and having listened with great interest to the input of literally thousands and thousands of Manitobans, we will be requiring mandatory use of masks in schools in grades 4 to 12 where physical distancing of two metres is not possible," Premier Brian Pallister announced Wednesday.

The order includes students, teachers, school staff, and facility visitors.

Non-medical masks are among the supplies students in grades 4 to 12 will need this year. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Non-medical masks are among the supplies students in grades 4 to 12 will need this year. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Pallister said the steps are being taken not just because so many parents demanded it, but because of "doctor's orders." Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin is strongly recommending mask usage when physical distancing can't be maintained.

"What we heard from administrators, school leaders, parents and teachers is that it would be even more straight forward to simply say it's required," and be easier to oversee, Pallister said.

Cross-Canada checkup

The decision to mandate face masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic brings Manitoba closer in line with other jurisdictions, including Ontario — which is requiring students in its grades 4 to 12 to wear non-medical masks indoors, including in hallways and during classes.

The decision to mandate face masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic brings Manitoba closer in line with other jurisdictions, including Ontario — which is requiring students in its grades 4 to 12 to wear non-medical masks indoors, including in hallways and during classes.

Ontario students in kindergarten to Grade 3 are encouraged to wear masks indoors, though not required. Teachers and staff, on the other hand, will be provided medical masks and eye protection by the provincial government.

In Saskatchewan, schools are preparing for four scenarios based on the COVID-19 context, and students in grades 4 through 12 will wear a mask in high-traffic areas, such as in hallways and on buses in the “Level 2” situation. Senior years students require masks in classrooms when physical distancing is not possible, or when in contact with people outside their cohort.

Alberta has mandated mask use for staff and students in grades 4 to 12 when distancing is not possible, on school buses and shared areas such as hallways. Masks are not required while students are seated and distanced in the classroom.

At schools in British Columbia, masks are required for staff, middle and secondary students in high-traffic and common areas such as hallways, or when outside of their cohort and distancing isn’t possible.

Quebec, meanwhile, has decided mask wearing is not compulsory for students and teachers if a two-metre distance can be maintained; staff must wear a mask and eye protection in those close-contact scenarios.

"We've done a number of town halls during the pandemic and I don't think there's been a bigger emotional issue than the return to school," Roussin said. "Parents are anxious about returning their kids to school. We heard a number of concerns and how best to reduce the risk. We heard that people are paying attention to the virus. They want what we want - the safety of our children and staff but they all know the importance of our children getting back to class," the public health chief said.

All students in Grade 4 and up, and bus drivers, will also be required to wear non-medical masks on school buses.

Parents and caregivers will choose whether younger students should wear a mask. More information on exceptions will be available soon regarding specific mask-free time and for those not recommended to wear a mask, Roussin said.

The province is developing resources to help children, along with their parents and caregivers, learn how to safely put on, wear and remove a mask, the public health chief said.

"We take these additional measures to ensure the health and safety of our most precious asset, which is, of course, our children," Pallister said.

However, making masks mandatory in schools isn't enough to ensure the safety of students, NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

"The government finally came to their senses — everybody wanted a mask mandate when it came to schools," he said Wednesday. "I'm still very concerned about the lack of a cap on class sizes."

Adding more classroom space and teachers will take an investment from the province, Kinew said. "There's $188 million unspent in COVID dollars the government has at their disposal. At least some of that should be used to make back to school safer."

The Manitoba Teachers' Society said while it is pleased the government listened "to the thousands of Manitobans, parents and teachers alike" who called for mandatory masks, it needs to go farther.

"Limiting class size remains a critical consideration in ensuring safe distancing," a statement by president James Bedford says on the MTS website.

Teachers also support a gradual return to school, and rapid COVID-19 testing for teachers. The MTS continues to press the government for a plan outlining steps to ensure the availability of qualified substitute teachers, it said.

 

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

   Read full biography

History

Updated on Thursday, August 20, 2020 at 10:36 AM CDT: Corrects typo

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