After receiving an overwhelming response from both critics and supporters, the mother who took her kids’ school division to court because she wanted them to go to school without masks is raising concerns exemptions are not being taken seriously.
Last month, a Manitoba judge dismissed Krista McKenzie’s bid for a court injunction to override the Division scolaire franco-manitobaine’s request she keep her kids home until she provided more detail about why they could not wear face coverings.
In court, McKenzie has cited "various medical, psychological, dental and personal reasons that are of a private nature."
"Because I’m a lawyer and I’m familiar with employment law, where medical reasons are sacrosanct in the employment context, I just couldn't believe that the school board would be blatantly requiring me to provide those medical reasons," she said in an interview with the Free Press.
McKenzie did not provide specifics Thursday — rather, she insisted her children have valid reasons for an exemption from wearing masks for extended periods of time and that her personal reasons "got me into trouble." One of those reasons is her concerns wearing masks could negatively affect kids in ways still unknown because masks only recently became mainstream.
“Because I’m a lawyer and I’m familiar with employment law, where medical reasons are sacrosanct in the employment context, I just couldn't believe that the school board would be blatantly requiring me to provide those medical reasons.” ‐ Krista McKenzie
Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Gerald Chartier wrote in his Sept. 24 decision the potential harm of the children wearing masks was "not substantiated medically or through other evidence." Chartier added the children’s right to attend school is subject to the division’s safety measures.
Now, McKenzie’s children have returned to school with masks and frequent mask breaks, which she said were not initially scheduled for students.
To date, the province has not put out any specific guidelines about mask-break requirements.
Supt. Alain Laberge said that during the first week of school, DSFM asked administrators to get creative in ensuring students were able to take breaks from wearing the face coverings.
"It can be teachers going for a walk outside. It could be a teacher asking students in rows1-3-5 to remove their mask while row 2 and 4 keep them and then alternate," Laberge said in an email Thursday.
"We have schools in rural areas that are blessed to have a huge playground/park, so they take advantage of it."
McKenzie, however, said the case over whether a board has the right to assess medical exemptions is ongoing.
"I’ve had a lot of support, people reaching out who would like me to support this until the end because mask exemptions and discrimination — not even just at the school board level, but in general, is becoming a big issue where there is a lot of harassment happening to those who are claiming mask exemptions," she said.
"So many people are misinformed and (store) employees now believe that they are what I call ‘the exemption police.’"
Manitoba school staff, and students in Grade 4 and up, are required to wear a mask when physical distancing is not possible. The province has given divisions the discretion to request a medical note for an exemption request.
"I’ve had a lot of support, people reaching out who would like me to support this until the end because mask exemptions and discrimination ‐ not even just at the school board level, but in general, is becoming a big issue where there is a lot of harassment happening to those who are claiming mask exemptions." ‐ Krista McKenzie
An exemption can be granted for a range of reasons, including in cases where a student is unable to remove a mask without help, or has severe sensory processing disorders, or a face deformity incompatible with a face covering.
Masks are currently mandatory in indoor areas in metro Winnipeg, but it remains unclear how people with legitimate health concerns or who are unable to take off a mask on their own should proceed in the event their exemption is questioned by a security guard or store employee.
Last month, the City of Edmonton cancelled a program that provided people who requested mask exemptions with orange cards to identify their status. The program, which started in the summer, was terminated after the city received complaints and determined many cards were given out to people who were not eligible for an exemption.
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.