WINNIPEG — With the back to school season right around the corner, Manitoba’s top doctor and education minister fielded questions from concerned parents and teachers on what the return to the classroom will look like, and how students will be protected.
Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, and Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen, hosted a town hall teleconference Tuesday evening to answer questions about the province’s back to school plan.
This comes less than a week after the province released its Restoring Safe Schools plan.
“We have to ensure that our young people get back into the classrooms,” Goertzen told Manitobans. “There are negative impacts for young people not being in the classroom, and not being able to get the in-class learning that they need.”
WHY ARE MASKS NOT REQUIRED FOR ALL STUDENTS?
In the province’s plan, it is strongly recommending students in Grades 5 to 12, along with school staff and others in schools, wear masks or face coverings. Younger students can wear masks if they choose to, or if their caregivers want them to.
Many Manitobans questioned why masks are not mandatory for all students when they return to school.
Roussin said the national guidance when it comes to masks is that students ages 10 years and older wear masks. He said for younger students, the use of masks may not be as useful as they are to older students.
“We know that the transmission of the virus is less so, the younger the child is,” he said. “The other thing is just the expectation of adherence to proper mask use – the amount of times these kids would be touching their face and bringing the mask down is really counterproductive to using the mask.”
While they are not mandatory yet, Roussin said the possibility of masks being required is not off the table.
“Certainly, mask use is important, and we may at some point require mandated masks,” Roussin said. “As we strongly recommend it, and if get good compliance with that, then there won’t be a need to mandate it.”
CONCERNS OVER AT-HOME LEARNING
One parent questioned Goertzen on the lack of options for at-home learning for students.
“There are many parents that are very hesitant, like myself,” she said, noting she wanted to keep her children at home.
She described the choice between sending students to school or homeschooling as “kind of unnerving.”
Goertzen said if students have a specific medical requirement to stay home, there are supports put in place through the division to ensure the at-home learning can happen.
But, he said there are challenges in providing younger students with at-home learning.
“Those grades from (Kindergarten) to (Grade) 8 are probably the least likely to do well with at-home learning, or trying to do some kind of self-instruction if they don’t have some good guidance,” Goertzen said.
WHAT HAPPENS IF A STUDENT GETS COVID-19?
Roussin did tell Manitobans that it is expected that there will be cases of COVID-19 identified in schools, which is why the province is telling schools to operate using cohorts or groups of students.
“The idea behind the layered approach is to minimize the number of close contacts. The idea of cohorts is to have a maximum (number of students), so we are not going to have to shut down a school when we see a single case,” Roussin said.
He said when a case is identified in a school, public health will do a contact tracing investigation to identify anyone who is a close contact – which could include an entire cohort.
Roussin said those people will need to self-isolate for 14 days.
Public health will inform the close contacts first, followed by school administration, and then the school community of the exposure.
“We will be informing Manitobans of cases in schools and provide as much information as we can,” he said.
Manitobans can still give their input on the province’s back-to-school plan by completing an online survey at engagemb.ca.
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