Strong recommendation for masks in schools not good enough, union says

By | August 14, 2020

The union representing Manitoba teachers disagrees with the province’s decision to strongly recommend, but not require, students and staff to wear masks once schools reopen in the fall.

“We think all staff, all students, visitors to schools, parents — should be wearing masks in the public education system in Manitoba,” said Nathan Martindale, vice-president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.

On Thursday, the provincial government released more details about its plans to bring students back into classrooms in September while mitigating the risk of transmitting the new coronavirus. The plans include the recommendation that all staff and students in Grades 5 to 12 wear face masks. 

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society, which represents 16,000 teachers in Manitoba, called on the province to hire a significant number of substitute teachers. 

School divisions already had a hard time maintaining a robust pool of substitute teachers before the COVID-19 pandemic, Martindale said. With public health officials advising everyone to stay home if they feel any symptoms, that problem will likely get worse.

“There will  be teachers who maybe in other times would have tried to tough it out and go to work, they’re going to stay home,” he said.

Rapid testing for teachers

The society also says the provincial government should offer rapid testing for  COVID-19 to teachers before they return to school.

“Teachers are front-line workers in this scenario,” said Martindale, and rapid testing is necessary so they can feel confident when returning to the school system.

Parents still have many questions about their children’s return to school, said the director of the Manitoba Association of Parent Councils. 

“There is lots of anxiety,” said Brenda Brazeau.

Questions include how schools are supposed to restrict kids to cohorts of up to 75, as well as how consistent online teaching will be for kids who can’t go to school.

“There was no real information given as far as remote learning and how robust that would be,” Brazeau said.

School boards association supports plan

The Manitoba School Boards Association, which was on the steering committee that advised the government on this plan, supports the position that masks should be strongly recommended, but not mandatory.

Association president Alan Campbell believes most people will take the recommendation seriously, as they would any strong recommendation from a physician, but it leaves room for exceptions to be made.

“If you use the term strongly recommend, it does provide perhaps more flexibility in cases where a student or a staff member has a medical issue with wearing a mask.”

The province will monitor how well people follow the recommendation around masks, and could make them mandatory in the future, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said at a news conference Thursday. 

The pandemic makes it impossible for the provincial government to address every concern parents and teachers might have, Campbell said. 

“Which is why it is so important now for school boards to take this guidance and apply it in a way that makes sense in local schools,” he said.

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