Along with pens, paper and a bagged lunch, parents of many Manitoba students will have to send their children back to school this year with a face mask.
Manitoba, like other provinces, has imposed mask rules in its schools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Less than a week before Manitoba students are set to go back to school, however, parents still have questions about masks and how they will keep their children safe.
Many questions around mask use were raised in response to an online survey by CBC Manitoba, asking parents for their most pressing back-to-school questions.
CBC News reached out to the province and health experts in an effort to get some answers.
Take our survey if you have any other questions you want answered.
Where do students have to wear masks?
All students, regardless of age, must wear masks on school buses, the province announced Tuesday.
Indoors, or in situations where they cannot keep two metres apart, masks will be mandatory for students in Grade 4 and up, unless they have an exemption.
The province initially made only a strong recommendation that students wear non-medical masks, but under pressure from parents and teachers, later made them mandatory.
The province bought 4.7 million masks for schools to give to students who need them, although families are asked to provide their own masks for students to wear if they can.
What do parents and students need to know about masks?
The province has released detailed guidelines on the use of masks in schools.
Homemade masks should have two layers of tightly woven material, like cotton or linen, with no ventilation holes. They need to be comfortable, so they don’t require frequent adjustments.
Masks should fit securely, and the province recommends younger children wear masks with ear loops instead of string ties or lanyards, which are harder to use and could pose a choking hazard.
WATCH | A step-by-step video on how to make a mask at home:
Once a non-medical mask has been removed, it should be washed before it’s worn again.
The province advises parents to teach their kids about good hand hygiene when putting on taking off their masks. Children should not share their masks, and they should be taken off before lunch time and put in a designated bag or container to be cleaned.
Why don’t K-3 students have to wear a mask?
Manitoba doesn’t require students under Grade 4 to wear masks, except on buses.
Federal guidelines on reopening schools recommend students aged 10 and older wear masks, based on research that has found children younger than that have a lower risk of catching the virus and suffering serious consequences.
Older children are also better able to put masks on and take them off by themselves, and are less likely to be distracted by them.
In some Canadian cities, like Toronto and Calgary, school districts have gone further than provincial governments by making masks mandatory for all students.
The different rules reflect how much is still unknown about how the virus is transmitted in children, said Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, the Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba.
Although children have lower infection rates, they can still carry as much or more of the virus in their respiratory tracts as adults, meaning they can still infect others, said Kindrachuk.
The provincial government says parents can choose whether children in Grade 3 and under should wear masks.
“I think we need to do what we feel comfortable with and what we know works,” said Kindrachuk, adding that masks should not be seen as a substitute for other prevention methods, like handwashing and physical distance.
What if they’re in a combined Grade 3-4 class?
In the case of classrooms that have both Grade 3 and 4 students, the provincial government says all students should wear masks when they can’t stay two metres away from each other.
How do I get an exemption for my child?
The organization that regulates the medical profession in the province advised doctors against granting mask exemptions without a health-related reason.
There are “very few” medical conditions that would justify an exemption, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba said in a notice issued on Aug. 25.
Those include exemptions for children under five years old, people who can’t put on or take off a mask by themselves, and people with a medical condition (such as active breathing problems or cognitive difficulties) that prevents them from properly wearing a mask.
What if I’m opposed to mask use?
The College of Surgeons and Physicians of Manitoba has told doctors that exemptions from mask mandates should only be given if there is a clear medical reason for it.
“Feeling uncomfortable or holding a strong opinion against mask wearing” are not considered medical reasons for an exemption, the college said.
In general, the province says, most students with medical conditions should be able to wear masks.
“There is no evidence that wearing a mask will worsen an underlying medical condition,” the province said in a statement.
Will the rules change?
The rules around mask use have evolved significantly over the past few weeks and the beginning of school will put kids, and potentially the virus, in a new environment.
“I think we are all kind of sitting and waiting to see what happens,” said Kindrachuk.
Given the fact that there is still so much that we don’t know about COVID-19 and how it is transmitted, Kindrachuk says the rules need to be flexible.
“At the end of the day, I think we are all learning in real-time,” he said.
This story was made possible thanks to Manitobans who filled out CBC’s back-to-school survey. In it, we asked parents, teachers and students to send us their top questions and concerns about the unprecedented school year ahead.
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