Manitoba students in Grade 5 and up will be required to wear non-medical masks on school buses when classes resume in fall, provincial officials say.
The province is also strongly recommending — but not mandating — the use of masks for students from grades 5 to 12 in common areas and spaces in schools where physical distancing isn’t possible.
Making masks mandatory is “certainly not off the table,” Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said at a news conference on Thursday afternoon.
“We’re going to go with a strong recommendation and follow it closely,” Roussin said.
“If that doesn’t work, then we could mandate it.”
The government will provide masks and other protective gear to school divisions to give to students and staff, officials said.
If a COVID-19 case is detected at a school, closures will be considered as a last resort, and only if there is evidence of transmission among multiple groups of students or staff, provincial officials said.
Public health officials will first do contact tracing, schools will disinfect affected areas and not use them again until it’s deemed safe, and school communities will be notified about the case.
Drivers on buses will also be required to wear masks. It is recommended that teachers and other school staff wear masks in common and crowded areas.
Younger students aren’t being told to wear masks, but they can if their parents or caregivers want them to, provincial officials said.
People who have breathing problems or can’t take a mask off by themselves shouldn’t wear one. Children under age two also shouldn’t wear face masks, officials said.
Extra masks will be available throughout the year for kids who don’t have them. No specific funding from the province was announced on Thursday, although the education minister said the province will pay for some items.
Schools will also need to pay close attention to hygiene, particularly among younger students, provincial officials said.
Extra handwashing and sanitation stations will be set up and schools will need to clean commonly touched surfaces (like door handles), plus washrooms and lunchrooms, at least twice daily.
Water fountains that are not touchless will be turned off. Staff will serve all food in cafeterias, and no shared containers will be allowed in lunchrooms.
Schools are being asked to take ventilation into account in their back-to-school plans by avoiding air recirculation and making sure filters are clean.
Schools should also increase the outdoor air ratio either going into HVAC systems or by opening windows. The use of fans should be minimized, and fire doors should not be opened for ventilation.
Schools will also need to schedule classes to avoid giving students spares, limit bathroom occupancy at any given time and make sure students stay in smaller cohorts when two-metre distancing isn’t possible. Those cohorts still can’t be bigger than 75 students, and different cohorts will not be allowed in the same common areas at once.
Parents should avoid visiting schools and keep their distance at drop-off and pickup times. When possible, parents are asked to drive their kids to school.
Students who do take the bus to get to class should use the same seat every day.
Touching, such as hugs and high fives, should be avoided, the province said. Students are advised to smile and wave instead.
Toys in schools must be easy to clean, plush toys should be avoided and touch-sensory play materials like clay will not be allowed in schools. Kids will need to have their own scissors for arts and crafts projects.
Schools will mark entrances, exits and hallways to ensure physical distancing inside the building, officials said. Recesses and lunch breaks will also have staggered start and end times.
Physical barriers, such as plexiglass, may be used where distancing in schools is impossible, such as in reception areas. Schools will also have to make sure there’s enough space between desks and tables.
Parents are reminded to screen their kids for symptoms of COVID-19 every morning and keep them home if they’re sick. This doesn’t apply to students who have asthma or other chronic conditions — they’ll still be allowed to go to class.
Families of kids with compromised immune systems should consult with their doctor to assess whether their kids can go to school.
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