WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government is stopping short of mandating mask usage or physical distancing when students return to class on Sept. 7.
Masks will be mandatory in neighbouring Ontario and were required for older students in Manitoba in the spring. But the province's chief public health officer says the pandemic numbers in Manitoba are low, so mask usage will be "a strong recommendation."
"Right now, we're seeing very low community transmission (and) we have higher vaccine rates," Dr. Brent Roussin said Thursday.
"It's very important to get the kids back into school in as much a normal fashion as possible."
Roussin added masks may become mandatory if Manitoba's COVID-19 numbers worsen. But some said he shouldn't wait, given that experts expect another wave of the pandemic and kids under 12 are not eligible for vaccines.
"Lifting the mask mandate is dangerous and premature and unsafe," Nathan Martindale, vice-president of the Manitoba Teachers Society, said.
Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew also criticized the Progressive Conservative government's plan. He said allowing staff and students to be unmasked is an unnecessary risk.
"Having mask requirements in schools would make sense this fall, given what we know about the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant," Kinew said.
The Manitoba School Boards Association said boards are wondering whether they can institute their own mask rules and what the legal ramifications of such a move would be.
"Those are all of the things we need to seek more information on," association president Alan Campbell said.
Manitoba's COVID-19 case counts have dropped sharply in recent weeks. Health officials reported 37 new cases Thursday and two deaths. The five-day rate of people testing positive stood at 2.1 per cent provincially and 1.8 per cent in Winnipeg.
Aside from the mask recommendation, the back-to-school plan also recommends physical distancing "to the greatest extent possible."
Students are to return to in-class learning full-time, except for those who are immunocompromised or have family members that are.
Extracurricular activities such as sports teams and field trips will also resume. Music and band programs can proceed, with distancing required for students playing wind instruments.
Kids from kindergarten to Grade 6 — who are too young to be vaccinated — will be grouped in cohorts to minimize contacts, but those in grades 7 to 12 will not.
School buses will have assigned seating, as they did in the spring, to maintain physical distancing.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 5, 2021.
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press