Masks not required when Manitoba K-12 students return to class full-time in September

Manitoba students from kindergarten to Grade 12 will return to full-time in-class learning when the school year starts on Sept. 7 — but they won't be required to wear masks, officials say.

Students up to Grade 6 will stay in cohorts; guidance could change before year starts, province says

Public health rules in schools will mirror those in the broader community, which means masks will be recommended, but not required. (LightField Studios/Shutterstock)

In just over a month, Manitoba students from kindergarten to Grade 12 will head back to class to find things have mostly returned to normal.

That means extracurricular activities like sports and music programs will be back up and running, class cohorts will be scrapped for students above Grade 6 and masks — though still strongly recommended — will no longer be required.

Education Minister Cliff Cullen said as vaccination rates rise and transmission of COVID-19 slows, the province believes that guidance around face coverings will be enough to keep school safe come Sept. 7.

"We're in a lot better place going into September [now] than we were in June," Cullen said at a news conference Thursday.

"I think that's really the message that Manitoba parents should get: Schools have been safe in the past, we're in a better place, and schools should be safe into the future."

However, the government won't stand in the way of school divisions deciding to bring in stronger rules of their own for Manitoba's school population of more than 200,000 students, Cullen said.

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the province's guidance will be continually reviewed before the school year starts and could be changed for specific areas where COVID-19 is spreading or where vaccination rates are low.

"We're a month away from the start of school, and so there's plenty of time for us to revisit this, and if necessary, we can mandate masks," Roussin said.

The announcement comes after Manitoba announced it will scrap mask mandates in most public indoor spaces this weekend.

WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin on recommending — not requiring — masks:

Dr. Brent Roussin on why Manitoba is removing school mask mandate

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Manitoba’s Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin says the province’s announcement that masks won’t be required in schools come September was based on its current COVID-19 risk level — though that could still change. 0:37

For students who are immunocompromised or who live with someone who is, remote learning will still be on the table, the province said.

For those up to Grade 8, that will come through the remote learning support centre. Older students will have access to InformNet, teacher-mediated options and homeschooling, the province's Restoring Safe Schools plan says.

Each of those options will have a cap on how many students they can support.

Moving entire schools to remote learning will only be done as "a measure of last resort," the province said in a presentation shown at a technical briefing earlier Thursday.

Few pandemic measures remain

Manitoba students will still see a few pandemic changes remain this upcoming school year.

For example, no-touch drinking fountains will stay in place. School buses will still have assigned seating and measures like staggered recesses to avoid overcrowding should also remain, the province said.

In addition, Grade 12 provincial exams won't happen this year, though regular school exams can resume.

But many other aspects of school life will go back to normal as classes start back up at the yellow caution level of Manitoba's pandemic response system.

Assemblies, events and other gatherings at schools will be allowed as long as they follow current public health orders — but cohorted or grade-specific groups are recommended.

Extracurricular activities, sports and field trips will also be allowed to start up again, as long as they follow public health orders. Visitors will also be permitted, as will community use of schools — as long as it follows public health rules.

Music and band programs will also be allowed to start up again, but staff should be mindful of ventilation and encourage physical distancing, the province said. Libraries will also be open for students to use. 

Aside from assigned seating, school transportation will go back to normal.

But public health fundamentals including self-screening, hand hygiene and staying home when sick will still be part of the program.

And public health will still notify schools about any cases, with schools then notifying affected classes, the province said.

Child-care changes

Manitoba public health officials are also now recommending cohort sizes in child-care facilities increase from 30 to 48 kids, the province said.

Physical distancing within those cohorts also won't be required anymore, though it's strongly recommended staff only work with one cohort each.

Revised guidance for early learning and child-care facilities will be released within the next few weeks, the province said.

Schools will also continue to work with school-based child-care centres to make sure they keep running.

Concerns around return to normal

The update about Manitoba's return to school comes in the face of growing fears over a delta-driven fourth COVID-19 wave with no approved vaccination for kids under 12.

Currently, there is only one COVID-19 vaccine approved for use in Canada for those under 18. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for people 12 and older, but the other three vaccines approved in Canada — Moderna, AstraZeneca-Oxford and Johnson & Johnson — are only approved for people 18 and up. 

As for kids younger than 12, several trials are happening to test the effectiveness and safety of existing vaccines, but none have been approved for that age group.

Many Canadian doctors have said they believe the country is heading into a fourth COVID-19 wave driven by the highly contagious B.1.617.2 or delta variant.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, told reporters Friday that a long-range pandemic forecast suggests the country is "at the start" of that wave.

When Roussin earlier this week announced the upcoming loosening of public health orders for Manitoba, he said younger children are "much less at risk of severe outcomes or much less able to spread this virus."

However, Safe September Manitoba, a grassroots advocacy group, called for continued mask use here and for a remote learning option for any family that chooses it.

Ontario announced this week that families can continue with remote learning if they choose in the fall. That province will require mask use indoors for students in Grade 1 and up.

Vaccine clinics planned

Manitoba is also planning to roll out a school-based COVID-19 immunization campaign to address barriers some families may have faced in getting their kids vaccinated, the province said.

Vaccination teams will make stops in all schools with students age 12 to 17, but will start in areas with lower vaccine uptake, the province said in a later news release.

Planning is also underway for a similar campaign for kids aged five to 11 once COVID-19 vaccines are approved for that age group, the province said.

The province is also planning to help kids catch up on regular immunizations that were delayed during the pandemic.

That campaign is set to kick off at the start of the school year and will include vaccinations for HPV, hepatitis B, meningococcal disease and tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, as well as regular flu shots.

WATCH | Manitoba's full back-to-school news conference:

Manitoba's safe return-to-school plan news conference

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Manitoba unveils a return-to-school plan as kids 12 and under remain unvaccinated. 35:49

With files from Darren Bernhardt