Masks now mandatory in Manitoba schools for students in grades 4-12
Province previously 'strongly recommended' mask use by older students in common spaces, only required on buses
Masks will be mandatory in Manitoba schools for students from grades 4 to 12 when they can't physically distance, provincial officials said Wednesday, after pressure from parents and teachers with fears about safety come September.
"I don't think there's probably been a bigger issue — or a bigger emotional issue — that we've had to deal with yet than the return to school," said Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer.
"Parents are anxious about returning their kids to school."
Mask use also will be mandatory for school staff, wherever students or staff can't be sure of maintaining two metres of physical distancing, Roussin and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister announced Wednesday.
The province has previously resisted mandating mask use in its back-to-school plan. The plan announced last week strongly recommended mask use in common spaces for students in Grade 5 and up, but stopped short of requiring them except on buses.
But parents and educators have raised concerns in recent days and some called for a mandatory order.
"What we've heard from administrators, school leaders, parents, teachers as well, is that it would be even more straightforward to simply say it's required. And it might ease, in terms of oversight, supervision of the children," Pallister said Wednesday.
WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin speaks about parents' input on back-to-school plan:
"We hear these points, and we think within the school system where social distancing is not possible, that this will make good sense."
Masks were a "very big theme" of a remote town hall with parents Tuesday night, Roussin said.
"They want what we want ... the safety of our children and of staff," he said. "But they all know the importance of our kids getting back to in-class learning."
Enforcement, exceptions still unclear
It's still not clear how schools are to enforce mask use or who will be exempt from the rule.
Roussin said last week that people with breathing problems, children under age two and those who can't take a mask off by themselves shouldn't wear them.
"This is an issue. When we mandate things, we have to start thinking about exceptions," he said Wednesday.
The province will provide a list of exemptions, he said, and is working with divisions on a plan for enforcement.
The province had previously said students in Grade 5 and up would be required to wear masks on buses. That requirement will now apply to students Grade 4 and up. They'll be encouraged to bring their own masks from home if they can, but masks will also be provided for students, Roussin said.
WATCH | Masks mandatory in Manitoba schools, grades 4 to 12:
Public Health is looking at ways to make mask use easier on students, such as building in "mask breaks" during the school day and helping families learn about how to safely put on, wear and remove a mask.
Masks won't be needed in areas where students can be sure to maintain a physical distance of two metres between each other. Some classrooms, for example, may have desks spaced far enough apart that students could take their masks off while learning.
"It's possible, if that distancing can be maintained, then a mask really isn't required," Roussin said.
Normalize mask use: Teachers union
James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society, said Wednesday the union is "very excited" about the decision.
"When I announced in [a stakeholder meeting] that the decision on mandatory masks had been made, it was met by applause and maybe even a few cheers," he said in a phone interview.
The union, which represents roughly 16,000 Manitoba public school teachers, has long pushed for mandatory masks in schools, alongside other measures, including reduced class sizes and rapid COVID-19 test results for staff.
"It's not the final statement in safety," Bedford said. "It's one of those pieces that's going to make things a little bit safer."
Mandatory mask use will help normalize masks for students and the rest of society, Bedford said. He hopes to see enforcement approached as an opportunity to teach students about social responsibility.
"Enforcement, really, is strong language for a public school system. We're not in the business of ticketing students if they're not wearing a face mask," he said. "This is more about a learning experience."
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he was glad to see the government "came to their senses" on mask use. But the Official Opposition is still pushing for a drop in class sizes, more teacher hires and more government spending to support schools.
"We think that the best way that you can ensure that kids can stay a proper distance apart and stay safe and back to school is to have smaller class sizes, more room in each class — and that'll take investment."
The province hasn't ruled out requiring mask use in other public spaces beyond schools, Roussin said.
"It's certainly on the table. We've increased our messaging on masks over time. Right now we're clearly saying that indoor public places, especially when you can't physically distance, we want Manitobans to wear that mask," he said.
"If you're not sure, if you're out at a retail outlet or a store where you can't be adequately positive you're going to be physically distancing, be wearing a mask."
WATCH | Full news conference on COVID-19 | August 18, 2020