Declaring the "pandemic situation" over, Manitoba’s largest school division has informed its education workers they must now obtain a doctor’s note if they call in sick for more than three days — even if they have tested positive for COVID-19.
A reminder sent to staff members in the Winnipeg School Division has sparked confusion about public-health protocols in kindergarten-to-Grade 12 buildings as the world marks nearly 25 months of an ongoing public-health crisis.
"Staff are basically being told to come back ASAP and not worry about who they infect anymore," said an employee at Elmwood High School, who received a memo Tuesday morning about WSD reverting to its pre-COVID-19 absence reporting protocols.
The internal email, which was sent from the human resources department, indicates staff members are expected to return with a medical note if they are off work for upwards of three days because Manitoba’s self-isolation mandate ended.
"We are no longer in a pandemic situation and therefore quarantine (a specific absence management code) should not be used," it states.
On March 12, 2020, the day Manitoba confirmed the first local virus case, the province’s top doctor encouraged managers to review continuity plans and allow employees to stay home when ill, "without facing barriers such as the requirement for sick notes."
One day earlier, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. That global designation remains intact, despite the recent end to Manitoba’s public-health mandates, which have been replaced with recommendations.
“We are no longer in a pandemic situation and therefore quarantine (a specific absence management code) should not be used.” – Internal memo
It is now recommended rather than required that individuals who test positive for the virus self-isolate for five days after their symptoms started and until they have no fever and other symptoms have improved over a 24-hour period.
The mixed messaging between WSD’s policy and provincial isolation advice is not lost on Michelle Driedger, a researcher interested in health risk communication and risk perception at the University of Manitoba, who noted emerging evidence suggests people should actually still be quarantining for eight to 10 days when they have COVID-19.
"This is going to push people to go to work when maybe they shouldn’t," said the professor of community health sciences. "It’s definitely confusing."
Driedger said requiring a sick note is an added burden being placed on K-12 workers who have been forced to pivot constantly throughout the pandemic, only to be told they cannot be trusted to be "good actors" anymore.
"The government messaging that the pandemic is over has been very well received by folks. People are tired. They are burned out. And it’s what we’ve been waiting to hear," said Lauren Hope, a parent and teacher who co-founded Safe September MB, a collective that has been advocating for additional public-health measures in schools since 2020.
The reality is that COVID-19 persists and is both infecting and reinfecting individuals, as well as greatly affecting families with children who cannot yet be immunized and Manitobans who are at a higher-risk of severe outcomes, Hope added.
Doctors Manitoba’s stance is that sick notes should not be required "at this stage of the pandemic" because public-health advice continues to include isolation after an infection.
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society echoed that perspective Tuesday.
"We realize that collective agreement language may require a sick note. But let’s be reasonable about implementation," wrote union leader James Bedford, in a prepared statement.
WSD spokeswoman Radean Carter indicated there is more leeway than the internal email implies and absences are being handled on a case-by-case basis.
"Human resources is taking into consideration those instances when a person is being responsible and self-isolating when discussing the need for a physician’s note," Carter said, adding the division continues to encourage employees to stay home if they are sick and use standard sick time.
Teachers in WSD are allotted 20 sick days per year. During the period in which public health mandated that people with positive test results quarantine, the division introduced a provision for employees to take an additional five days off if they were either deemed a close contact or had contracted the virus.
“Human resources is taking into consideration those instances when a person is being responsible and self–isolating when discussing the need for a physician’s note.” – WSD spokeswoman Radean Carter
The provision ceased to be in effect on March 15, when masks and isolation stints became optional. At the same time, schools entered code green on Manitoba’s colour-coded pandemic-response system, meaning there is apparently limited risk of transmission.
The COVID-19 school dashboard, a resource that once listed cases affiliated with schools, has since been scrubbed from a provincial website.
The province’s decision to stop publishing regular pandemic data makes it impossible to know the current risk level and whether Manitoba is on the cusp of another wave, according to Driedger.
"You have people who want to be responsible, and yet they are running into barriers and well, if they think: ‘government doesn’t seem to care and government doesn’t want to make it easy for me to do the right thing, then why should I bother?’ then that’s going to lead down a much scarier, slippery slope of people abandoning even what they know to be the right things to do," she said.
“You have people who want to be responsible, and yet they are running into barriers and well, if they think: ‘government doesn’t seem to care and government doesn’t want to make it easy for me to do the right thing, then why should I bother?’" – Michelle Driedger, University of Manitoba
The professor added she is already seeing this play out, as fewer people don masks in schools and other public spaces when the science is clear that such personal protective equipment is an effective way to protect the person wearing it and others.
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.