Manitoba education minister explains province's decision to change contact tracing in schools

Manitoba’s education minister said the province is changing its approach to close contact notification in schools due to the nature of the Omicron variant.

“The reality is we’re facing a different animal with this Omicron variant. It’s moving quickly and really it doesn’t lend itself to contact tracing as we know it,” said Education Minister Cliff Cullen in an interview on Friday.

Cullen’s comments come the day after the province announced schools would no longer provide close contact notification or letters on individual cases in schools.

The minister said instead of doing individual contact tracing, Manitoba is taking a broader approach.

“It’s more of a school by school,” he said, noting the province will still have the dashboard displaying the number of confirmed cases in schools.

The Manitoba NDP has criticized the decision from the government, saying Thursday's announcement lacked details and that the move now makes it the parent’s responsibility to ensure their child does not have COVID-19.

"Safety is always important in schools, and in order to maintain a safe school environment, we have to get information out to parents," Education Critic Nello Altamare told reporters on Thursday.

Cullen said Public Health will continue to work closely with schools, and monitor cases, as well as absenteeism.

He said if the province notices a spike of cases at a certain school then it will make targeted changes to that particular school, including establishing an alert.

“Then we could take other steps for that school and that may include additional rapid testing and a targeted approach for those schools,” Cullen said.

“Or it may be in extreme situations, it may mean going back to remote learning for that particular school or a cohort of that school.”

PRECAUTIONS IN SCHOOLS

With students returning to in-person learning on Monday, Cullen said schools have been working to bring students back safely.

“The cleaning preparations are going on, making sure we have physical distancing, making sure we have masks available,” he said.

“We’ll be re-establishing our vaccine programs, making sure we have the rapid test kits available for situations.”

When asked why the province didn’t address air filtration in classrooms sooner, Cullen said, “Ventilation is one tool in the toolbox.”

“I don’t think we can lose sight of all of the other precautions that people should take,” he said, noting personal hygiene, wearing masks, physical distancing, and reducing contacts should continue to be a focus.

Cullen said the province has been working with school divisions for over a year on ventilation, adding that Manitoba also enhanced funding for ventilation.

For students who are still concerned about returning to the classroom, the minister said we have to learn to live with the virus.

“Students do learn the best when they’re in school,” he said.

“I would suggest that students or parents that are having any apprehension about going back into the classroom have a consultation with their teachers just to make sure that they understand all of the precautions that the individual schools are taking to keep our students safe.”

- With files from CTV’s Nicole Dube.