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Manitoba’s back-to-school plan stops short of making face masks mandatory in schools, issuing instead a "strong recommendation" all staff and students in Grade 5 and up wear them in the fall.
Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin is recommending non-medical masks be worn in common areas and whenever physical distancing of two metres is not possible in a school building.
Older students will only be required to wear masks on the school bus, as will bus drivers; otherwise, face coverings are optional. Younger students will be able to wear masks, if they choose to.
"We’re going to strongly recommend it, and if that doesn’t work, we could mandate it — but we’re not back yet and so, we’re going to rely on Manitobans to follow recommendations, which they largely have," Roussin told reporters Thursday.
Two weeks after unveiling an outline for September, the province released a 28-page school practice and protocol document Thursday — in part, to address questions that came up when public officials reviewed more than 77 school division and independent school plans.
The document covers everything from strict "no-sharing" rules that will be adopted in schools to new guidelines for school cafeteria and ventilation to how schools can offer field trips during the COVID-19 pandemic, with public health precautions in mind.
“We’re going to strongly recommend it, and if that doesn’t work, we could mandate it ‐ but we’re not back yet and so, we’re going to rely on Manitobans to follow recommendations, which they largely have.” — Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin on masks in schools
Manitoba has not set aside any extra funding for public schools to implement plans, but Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said the province will be working with school divisions to ensure there is equitable access to masks.
The price tag for procuring reusable masks for divisions so they have extra will be "into the millions," Goertzen said, adding schools will stockpile masks to hand out to those who forget them throughout the school year.
On behalf of the province’s approximately 16,000 teachers, Manitoba Teachers’ Society vice-president Nathan Martindale said he was disappointed by the update. Martindale said the union wanted the province to require face masks for both staff and students of all ages.
He said the union also wants to see funding to cap class sizes, hire more substitute teachers, and provide rapid COVID-19 testing for teachers.
Posted: 13/08/2020 6:48 PM
Parents, teachers and administrators have myriad questions about plans to return to school even as the provincial government released its answer key.
Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen revealed the province’s COVID-19 school protocols Thursday. The province stopped short of mandating masks and instead strongly recommends students in grades 5 to 12, school staff and others in schools wear non-medical masks in common areas and where physical distancing is not possible. Individual school divisions are expected to release their own plans by Aug. 17.
"Could we not see some sort of staggered return, so that the system isn’t overwhelmed right away, and that would give school divisions time to work out details and the plans and fine-tune things?" Martindale added, about the Sept. 8 back-to-school date.
Masks aside, the new document breaks down exactly how schools will handle a COVID-19 case.
If a school community member tests positive, public health experts will begin an investigation by requesting attendance records. They will then notify close contacts and recommend testing and self-isolation, inform a school community about the case and later, issue a public bulletin. Schools will clean and disinfect areas where exposures took place and as a last resort, close a school, if necessary.
Classroom teachers will be required to provide remote instruction for students who are self-isolating, but divisions are expected to set up distance learning for those who will engage in remote instruction all year — an option only available to students who are immunocompromised.
"To be quite honest with you, I’m scared," said Patrick Dryburgh, a grades 6-7 teacher in Winnipeg.
Dryburgh, who is entering his 11th year of teaching, said he would feel much more comfortable if the province mandated smaller class sizes to ensure physical distancing (which he suggests could happen if classes are split into morning and afternoon groups). His classroom’s windows don’t open, so he said he's worried about ventilation.
“To be quite honest with you, I’m scared.” — Winnipeg teacher Patrick Dryburgh
"There's just a lot of things out there that have me very, very concerned at this time; but I will tell you, I absolutely hated teaching from home… I love being in the classroom with students, being able to talk to them, so I still want to get back to school, but I think it has to be done smarter," Dryburgh said.
Before Thursday’s announcement, NDP Leader Wab Kinew reiterated his party’s key concerns about the province’s approach, including a lack of funding for smaller classes and hiring additional support staff.
Dougald Lamont, leader of the Manitoba Liberals, echoed those comments after the announcement. Lamont added the province has yet to address specific challenges schools in First Nations, particularly related to internet connectivity in remote areas, will face this year.
"For some, I think that there’s this feeling that the lights have been off for five months and now we’re going to turn the lights on, on Sept. 8 and see how this goes," Goertzen said. "There’s been a lot of this that’s been happening already, with the partial reopening of schools, summer schools and day camps."
School divisions are expected to release their local plans Monday.
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.
Updated on Thursday, August 13, 2020 at 6:51 PM CDT: Updates embedded story.
8:34 PM: Fixes typo.
11:46 PM: Adds pdf
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