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School boards to have final say on mask use

The Manitoba government recommends that school divisions follow public health guidance and get rid of mandatory mask use on March 15 but the decision ultimate lies with elected school boards.
teacher and students in classroom with medical masks South_agency Getty Images
Manitoba school boards will have the final say on whether masks are required or recommended in kindergarten to Grade 12 schools after the provincial mask mandate is eliminated March 15.

Manitoba school boards will have the final say about whether masks are required or recommended in their local K-12 classrooms come March 15.

Late last week, the education department informed division leaders COVID-19 mandates in schools will soon disappear, in line with the rest of society, “to start to return to normal.”

Education Minister Wayne Ewasko was not made available for an interview on the subject March 7.

“(The province) strongly recommends school and child care facility officials follow the guidance of the chief provincial public health officer, including removing mask mandates in indoor settings as the public health focus shifts to individual risk assessment,” Ewasko said in a prepared statement.

At the same time, he acknowledged school boards are made up of elected officials.

“Trustees are charged with decision making that addresses their local needs, including if they choose to continue requiring the use of masks.”

Seven Oaks School Division administration has informed families it is following public health guidance and in turn, face coverings will be recommended in its north Winnipeg schools, as of next week.

“Individual staff, students and families will now make their own choices on masks. We need to respect one another’s choices,” superintendent Brian O’Leary wrote in a community update March 7.

O’Leary noted the division will ask staff and students with flu-like symptoms to remain home, maintain cohorts in elementary schools, and distribute masks and rapid antigen tests to community members, among other limited pandemic measures, for the foreseeable future.

River East Transcona, Louis Riel, and St. James-Assiniboia leaders indicated they are all awaiting a meeting scheduled with provincial officials this week before confirming plans.

Spokespeople for Winnipeg and Pembina Trails said board deliberations must take place before either releases details.

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society has made clear its stance: it is premature to lift mask requirements in schools.

“Let’s think about this logically, from the perspective of the school environment and working with children. It’s easy to loosen restrictions — and I sympathize greatly with those who struggle greatly with wearing a face mask — but it’s way more difficult to (reinstate rules),” said MTS president James Bedford.

Bedford said the union’s preference is masks remain universal requirements.

Winnipeg mother Lindsay McDonald, who indicated her kindergartener is not bothered by masking in the slightest, echoed those sentiments March 7.

McDonald said she feels abandoned by the province, given it is prioritizing “so-called freedom” over the lives of immunocompromised Manitobans like herself.

She is hopeful LRSD will continue going above and beyond provincial measures, as it has done throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

(LRSD ensured two metres of distancing was in place between all students throughout 2020-21. The division was also a leader in establishing vaccine requirements and promoting outdoor education with tents throughout the pandemic.)

“(Masking) is something easy we can do as a precaution to lower risk,” said McDonald. “It’s sad that my five-year-old recognizes the importance of wearing a mask but our government doesn’t.”

While the loosening of restrictions is raising some community members’ anxiety levels, others are celebrating them.

“We are completely against them to start with… I don’t think we will be wearing them anywhere (after March 15),” said Christina Kitson, a mother of three young boys — the eldest of whom attends Grade 1 in Sunrise School Division.

Kitson said her first grader has been complaining about headaches, owing to the mask he wears to school. Since her youngest child was born during the pandemic, the mother from Lac du Bonnet added she worries his facial recognition and speech skills may be delayed because of widespread masking.

Meantime, the overwhelming majority of students who streamed out of Sisler High School in Winnipeg on the afternoon of March 7, all donned masks as they walked to cars, bus stops and doorsteps.

“It’s like second nature to me now,” said Grade 12 student Kayla Johnston, who plans to continue masking indefinitely.

Francheska Reyes, 17, said she is hesitant the mandate is being lifted too quickly and in turn, cases will spike and disrupt Class of 2022 graduation ceremonies.

For Grade 11 student Devon Bolton, however, an end to mandatory masking in class cannot come soon enough. “It’s really uncomfortable to wear for six hours a day in class, everywhere in the halls,” said the 16-year-old.

Devon said he will continue wearing a face covering in public places outside school to protect the elderly and young children who remain ineligible for vaccination, but he noted his classmates are primarily healthy teenagers.

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