Masks won’t be mandatory when Manitoba students return to school this fall

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When schools reopen in the fall, all Manitoba students will be allowed back in the classroom, but masks won't be mandatory.

The province's education plan was unveiled Thursday and in-person learning will resume for all Kindergarten to Grade 12 students.

As part of the plan, students will not be required to wear masks, but it is strongly recommended, according to officials.

The province said health officials will monitor COVID situations throughout the province and all guidance will be reviewed before school starts on Sept. 7 and during the school year.

School divisions will also be able to establish their own mask mandate if they choose to do so.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, said even though masks aren't mandatory, they are still one of the fundamentals to fight COVID-19.

"Right now we have been seeing very low community transmission, we have higher vaccine rates, which not only protects the people who are vaccinated, but the people around them - especially those who are unable to receive the vaccine - and right now we are strongly recommending (wearing masks). So we haven't removed anything, we want people to wear masks."

The younger grades – Kindergarten to Grade 6 – will be in cohorts, while the older grades will have full class sizes with physical distancing in place.

Even with kids returning full-time, remote learning will still be available for those students who are immunocompromised or have family members that fit that category. The province predicts approximately 1,000 students will require this option.

Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead of Manitoba's Vaccine Implementation Task Force, said once the school year gets underway, the COVID-19 vaccine will be available, as vaccine teams will be attending all schools to provide first and second doses to kids aged 12 to 17 who haven’t received a vaccine dose yet.

"We're going to look at the epidemiology, vaccine uptake, and other data to help guide this work," said Reimer. "Using the data, we plan to start with schools in communities with the lowest immunization rates to help reduce potential barriers to immunization in those communities and help increase protection for the whole community."

Reimer added the task force is also working on an immunization program for students aged five to 11, noting while vaccines aren't available for that age group right now, it's believed a vaccine will be ready in the fall.

"It's expected approvals will come before the end of the calendar year, if not sooner. In Manitoba, that represents about 125,000 children who will need their first and second doses."

Reimer said the province is also working on plans to help students catch up on vaccines they may have missed during the pandemic, such as HPV, Hepatitis B, Meningococcal disease, tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. 

NDP, LIBERALS DISAPPOINTED WITH PLAN

Manitoba Official Opposition Leader Wab Kinew criticized the decision to not make masks mandatory at schools this fall, saying it doesn’t make sense, especially when COVID-19 cases rose during the second and third waves.

“At this point in the pandemic, you’d hope that the government would have learned from the mistakes made in the past, and it seems that this year’s back-to-school will be a bit of a Groundhog Day,” he said.

Kinew said he believes having mask requirements in school would make sense this fall, given the presence of the Delta variant and its increased transmissibility, including potentially amongst vaccinated people. He adds there are still many children in Manitoba schools who are too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“If you truly believe in-class learning is important, a very easy way to ensure kids will remain in class, a very easy way to ensure consistency in teachers, and a very easy way to reassure parents that they won’t have to miss work to self-isolate with their kids this year, would be to keep the mask requirement in schools.”

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont called the plan, “very disappointing,” and said it “basically offers no protections.” He said investments needed to be made in improving ventilation in schools.

“It seems to me that this government is basically acting like the pandemic is over, even as Dr. Roussin says a fourth wave is inevitable,” he said.

Lamont also disagreed with the decision to not make masks mandatory in schools, saying they’re the easiest way to make sure people aren’t spreading COVID-19. He said the government has not been proactive when planning for the pandemic.

“They’re always looking backward, and they’ve been blinkered, and they only ever look within the borders of Manitoba, and not what’s beyond that,” he said.

The full plan can be read below.