Manitoba

Manitoba teachers exempted from province's household self-isolation policy

Teachers living with someone who has COVID-19 symptoms can keep teaching students in class, despite a recently announced rule that states entire households in Winnipeg must isolate at home in such cases while awaiting test results.

Teachers living with someone with COVID-19 symptoms are free to come to class masked while results pending

Educational assistants and teachers are exempt from a recent recommendation that entire households isolate in the event one person has COVID-19 symptoms. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

A provincial recommendation that entire households self-isolate if one person shows COVID-19 symtoms does not apply to teachers, the province says, after restrictions put "exceptional strain on staffing."

The province's chief public health officer first said last week that if any member of a household has symptoms of the illness, the entire household must self-isolate, pending results of a COVID-19 test.

"So it means no one else goes to school, no one goes to work, until that test result is back," Dr. Brent Roussin said on Nov. 2.

But Manitoba Public Health says it is exempting teachers from that, provided they're asymptomatic.

"Teachers, and those required to support in-class learning at schools, are critical service workers and public health was advised that the mandatory self-isolation rules was putting exceptional strain on staffing," a government spokesperson wrote in an email Wednesday.

When Roussin first announced the household self-isolation recommendation, first responders and health-care workers were exempted.

Manitoba teachers and educational assistants are exempt too, according to the province, provided they wear a medical-grade face mask when they return to class.

Public Health is also extending the exemption to bus drivers and custodians in cases where they're deemed essential to keep a school open and can't be replaced, a provincial spokesperson said. They, too, must wear a medical mask upon return.

Lack of backups

The president of the union that represents teachers says they are sometimes waiting as much as a week to get COVID-19 test results, and that's been exacerbating absenteeism rates, especially since there is a lack of substitutes.

James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society, suggested that could be a factor in the latest decision, and he criticized the government for not hiring more teachers and substitutes.

Substitutes who are at home waiting for test results are often left without pay, said Bedford, and he questions why the province hasn't heeded calls from teachers for more help across the system.

"I think a reasonable substitute would probably do a lot of time reflecting on, 'Why am I doing this?'" he said. "It's making a big problem much worse."

He spoke with a Winnipeg high school principal Tuesday who told him the school cancelled 40 per cent of its classes one day recently due to a lack of subs.

Manitoba's largest school division has already said it won't be making use of the province's exemption. The Winnipeg School Division said in a note to all staff it will still ask staff members to self-isolate if they have a household member with symptoms.

"Due to the current shortage of medical masks available in our schools and buildings … WSD is advising all staff who have a household member with symptoms of COVID to continue to self-isolate," the division said.

"As soon as we are able to procure replacement medical masks from the province, WSD will also follow that directive and will send out an advisory at that time."

Communication poor: teachers' society

Bedford said superintendents learned of the self-isolation policy shift Monday morning. By the time the union was notified Tuesday, he said many teachers had already caught wind of the move and had questions.

The province's communication has been poor, he said, and concerns this week over expired medical face masks distributed to divisions haven't inspired confidence in teachers either.

"They turn to their union for information, and their union doesn't have the up-to-date information, and this just heightens the level of stress. I think everybody involved needs to be working to bring down the level of stress," he said.

"Government just doesn't seem to care about the stress load that teachers are bearing."

Schools are among essential services unaffected by the provincewide move to the red, or critical, pandemic response level that comes into effect Thursday.

There have been hundreds of positive cases in the school system, though only a few transmission events or outbreaks, since students returned in September. 

'Crying out for help'

Bedford said while the union is glad the self-isolation policy shift will enable teachers to get back into class sooner, it doesn't alleviate ongoing health and safety concerns linked to inadequate support from the province.

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen's announcement on Monday of some supports for remote learning is a step in the right direction, but those supports should have been in place in September, said Bedford. They also aren't sufficiently robust, he said. 

The blended learning model is also contributing to teacher burnout, only about a quarter of the way into the 2020-21 school year, he said.

"You can't have students learning in class and remotely under the guidance of the same teacher. It's like texting and driving," he said.

"Our members are crying out for help, they're crying out for support, because they are overworked, their mental health is crumbling and they don't see concrete action," said Bedford.

"What we see from this government is lots of words, but very, very little action to actually support the real problems that our members are encountering in schools right now."

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, climate, health and more. He recently finished up a stint as a producer for CBC's Quirks & Quarks. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

With files from Susan Magas

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