The Manitoba Teachers’ Society wants the provincial government to make face masks mandatory in all classrooms for the safety of its members and students.
MTS president James Bedford said many teachers are apprehensive about heading back to class on Sept. 8 as COVID-19 cases in the province continue to climb.
Since Saturday, Manitoba has added 111 new COVID-19 cases and three more deaths.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the province had 235 active cases, including eight people in hospital — two of them in intensive care. There have been 11 deaths related to COVID-19 in Manitoba, including two announced Tuesday.
The province updated its guidelines last week for the return to school. It has mandated the wearing of masks on school buses for all students in grades 5-12, but under the provincial guidelines, no one is required to wear them while in school.
While other specific COVID-19 protocols have been left up to school divisions, “the province has made it clear that they’re going to say [masks are] strongly recommended and divisions have been told they cannot go beyond that. An individual school division cannot make masks mandatory,” Bedford said.
“We’re still working to get them to change their minds on that one.”
MTS want masks to be required not only for all staff and students, but all visitors at public schools across the province.
“I need school to be as safe as it could possibly be so my family can be safe,” Bedford said.
“Teachers are also incredibly concerned about the safety and well-being of their students — probably only their students’ parents are more concerned about the safety of the students.”
The society says it makes little sense that students should have to wear masks on the bus but take them off once they get to school.
The province has defended its position by saying that physical distancing, which can’t be practised as effectively on a bus, will be followed in schools.
Class sizes a challenge
But Bedford and others wonder how that will be possible.
Hundreds of teachers and parents, who have expressed frustration with what they see as lax protocols, have banded together to form an advocacy group and social media campaign called #SafeSeptemberMB.
On Thursday, the group is planning to hold a physically distanced classroom demonstration on the Manitoba legislature grounds, placing chairs two metres apart to show how much space is needed to meet the standard distancing recommendations.
Manitoba has said a one-metre distance in schools would be the minimal amount, but even that would be a challenge, said Bedford. He and MTS want to see a reduction in class sizes so proper distancing can be achieved.
“There are parts of the province where class sizes are very low and that distancing, being a minimum requirement of one metre, is quite possible,” he said.
“But we have class sizes at the other end of that spectrum that run into 30 students and plus. And one has to remember a classroom is not a defined physical size — they vary significantly.”
Bedford acknowledges there are costs associated with splitting large classes into smaller ones, but said that must be considered.
Teachers also want access to rapid COVID-19 test results, Bedford said. A number of rapid-testing machines have been provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada and Manitoba Health to four health-care facilities in northern Manitoba.
The equipment has the capability to provide a COVID-19 test result in about an hour.
Having access to rapid testing for teachers across the province will help ensure quick isolation if any cases should arise, Bedford said.
MTS leadership will meet over the next couple of days to work toward solutions on teachers’ concerns, and will also meet with the deputy minister of education during that time, he said.
“I think that’s gong to be a very constructive conversation,” he said, adding more meetings are planned beyond that as well.
“I think the next few weeks are going to be critical in terms of what that opening day of school looks like. We know that we’re [being] listened to, we know that our concerns are being heard.
“It’s a question of which ones are going to be acted upon and how soon.”
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