Manitoba

Manitoba schools will no longer notify close contacts of individual COVID-19 cases

Manitoba schools will no longer notify close contacts of individual cases and will instead provide reports on absenteeism through their regular channels, the provincial government announced Thursday.

Schools will monitor rates of absenteeism, report operational issues to public health

Students wear masks in class in a March 2021 file photo. With all Manitoba students set to return to in-person learning on Monday, the province announced Thursday that schools will no longer notify close contacts of individual COVID-19. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Manitoba schools will no longer notify close contacts of individual COVID-19 cases, as the government shifts its efforts from containing the highly transmissible Omicron variant to managing cases, provincial officials announced Thursday.

Schools will instead provide reports on absenteeism due to COVID-19, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said at a news conference.

The changes are necessary because of the much more infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Roussin said.

"With wide community transmission, we certainly expect to see cases in schools. We need to to expect that we need to manage our risk, not eliminate it," he said at the news conference, alongside Education Minister Cliff Cullen and deputy education minister Dana Rudy.

Students and staff who test positive are encouraged to inform their schools, which will track cases and report rates of absenteeism and operational impacts to public health officials, Roussin said.

Public health officials will watch confirmed case numbers and reports of absenteeism in schools for signs of increased transmission above levels expected in the community, he said. They may recommend periods of rapid antigen testing or other preventive measures, like reducing higher-risk activities.

If case counts continue to rise in a school, public health might recommend a seven-day period of remote learning for the class, cohort or school.

"These changes, they're leveraging the local knowledge of school division and school principals," Roussin said.

Divisions and school principals will "ensure that each school is monitoring the spread of the virus and adjusting measures as required. They make the decision to move to remote learning."

The schools are best positioned to decide when to go to remote learning, which would be considered a last resort, he said.

Any move to remote learning would be limited to the class or school level, rather than affecting entire communities or divisions.

Learning to live with virus

The announcement comes one day after Premier Heather Stefanson said the province would refocus its efforts from containing the virus to mitigating community risk. 

Manitobans must "learn to live with" the coronavirus, Stefanson said at a Wednesday news conference.

Deputy Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Jazz Atwal, who also spoke at that conference, said it was "highly likely" that everyone in the province would be exposed to the virus in the coming weeks.

Roussin said Thursday that public health has not set a specific transmission rate at which any mitigation measures would be put in place for schools.

"We purposely didn't set a single rate that we were going to to be tied to. We're going to look at the overall picture in that school, the rate of progression of absenteeism."

WATCH | Officials announce contact tracing changes for Manitoba schools:

Education, health leaders speak about contact tracing in Manitoba schools

5 days ago
Duration 47:27
As Manitoba students prepare to head back into classrooms next week, amid a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant, education leaders and the province's public health chief discuss contact tracing in schools. 47:27

Cullen said the provincial government has consulted with pediatricians, who stressed the importance of being in class for the mental health and well-being of students. 

Any concerned parents or students should talk to their teachers about precautions put in place, the education minister said.

He also said the province has taken other measures to mitigate the risk of COVID, such as providing an additional $6.8 million to make short-term operating improvements to air-purification systems.

'Thin on details': Opposition

The Opposition NDP's education critic said the province's plan was "thin on details."

"Parents are being tasked to take on the responsibility of doing all the preparing and ensuring that their kid doesn't have COVID," Nello Altomare said following Thursday's news conference.

"It seems that we're on our own. We heard it yesterday, we heard it again today."

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said it was "incredibly disappointing" that there was no announcement of new funding or safety measures Thursday.

"Parents who do not want to continue with remote learning should have that option, but they don't. That is unacceptable," he said in a written statement.

Manitoba students are preparing to head back into classrooms next week, amid a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant, after a one-week period of remote learning.

The delayed return to in-person learning was meant to give anyone who was infected over the holidays time to develop symptoms and take steps to avoid spreading the illness.

Schools have been giving out rapid antigen tests to families that wanted them, with the hope of catching any cases that haven't yet shown symptoms before they come to class.

As of Wednesday, a total of 63,247 first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been given to children ages five to 11, or 50.6 per cent of that age group.

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