A growing number of Manitoba school divisions is exceeding public health guidelines for the 2021-22 academic year by requiring all students and staff to arrive at school masked on Sept. 7.
"It immediately de-stressed the return to school for me," said Fiona Cook, a Grade 4-5 teacher in the Louis Riel School Division.
On Tuesday, Cook’s employer announced it would be among the divisions to mandate mask-use indoors when physical distancing is not adequate.
Manitoba’s back-to-school plan touts a "near-normal" return, with an emphasis on recommendations rather than mandates when it comes to face coverings, COVID-19 vaccination and physical distancing protocols. In contrast to last school year, during which face coverings were mandatory for anyone in Grade 4 or older, school visitors of all ages are being encouraged to don masks.
"I really hope that the more businesses that keep enforcing masks, and the more that people keep doing that, that maybe the province will change its mind about rescinding (the mask mandate). I certainly hope so," said Cook, who, next month, will welcome a class of elementary schoolers that is not yet eligible to get vaccinated.
When Education Minister Cliff Cullen unveiled the school plan earlier this month, he indicated the province would not stand in the way of boards that decide to take additional public health measures.
Division leaders sought clarity on what that meant during a meeting with provincial and public health officials on Tuesday. Not long after the meeting, Louis Riel, Seven Oaks and the Division scolaire franco-manitobaine solidified their mask mandates.
"I wish we didn’t have to wear masks, but I don’t want to take any chances," said Alain Laberge, superintendent of DSFM. "At the end of the day, my job is to make sure I have school environments that are safe for everyone."
Louis Riel is going so far as to make medical-grade masks, which will be provided by the division, mandatory for all staff, students and visitors in its schools and on school buses.
In St. James-Assiniboia, the 2020-21 status quo will remain in effect this year — meaning masks will be a universal requirement on school buses and mandatory in schools for all students in Grade 4 and up. For younger students, cohorting, physical distancing and "developmentally appropriate periods of mask-wearing" will be in place.
Notably, teachers across the province set aside time for mask breaks, children do not have to wear masks during lunch or snack times and there is flexibility with masking outdoors.
River East Transcona trustees met Wednesday night to discuss making face coverings compulsory.
Pembina Trails and Winnipeg School Division are still holding out for the province to implement a universal mandate in K-12 classrooms; both divisions have written to the ministry of education to express their support for the measure.
Senior information officer Radean Carter said Manitoba’s largest school board is hopeful the province will take the lead because public health is a provincial responsibility, but trustees are prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to keep students safe.
Among the public health measures in place, schools in WSD have been directed to maximize the fresh air exchange within their buildings. In DSFM, the suspension of community use of schools will remain in effect to limit contacts in buildings.
Louis Riel is exploring the idea of voluntary disclosure of vaccination status for both staff and students who are eligible to be immunized.
Cook, who is fully immunized, said she would be interested in knowing whether the parents of the children in her class are vaccinated.
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.