Manitoba is boasting a back-to-school season that will be "near normal" for all students and educators, including those who are unvaccinated by choice or for eligibility reasons, with a significant rollback of mandated public health protocols.
Masks will be recommended, rather than required in schools as of Sept. 7. Cohorting of groups of no more than 75 will only be obligatory among students who are in Grade 6 or younger, since those pupils are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. As for physical distancing, schools are expected to "encourage" it to the greatest extent possible.
"After 18 months of facing the global impacts of COVID-19 together, Manitoba is on the road to reopening, including our schools operating near normal," said Education Minister Cliff Cullen, who was flanked by the province’s top doctor during a news conference Thursday.
Cullen said all students will be in class full-time, except for elementary students who have compromised immune systems or live with someone who is at-risk and require distance education support through the province’s remote learning hub.
The 2021-22 academic year will focus on addressing mental health and well-being, recovery learning, and supporting students with special needs, the minister added.
Not long after the announcement, critics started to call out the province’s plan for failing to be proactive with mask-use as a fourth wave looms and the highly infectious Delta variant continues to pose a threat in the province.
"Parents and teachers and students all need to feel safe during school. The easiest way to do that is to make the mask-wearing mandatory instead of this wishy-washy recommendation," said Nathan Martindale, vice-president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, which represents more than 16,000 public school educators.
Provincial officials are expected to review the blueprint in the coming weeks before Labour Day, and on an ongoing basis, in case adjustments need to be made to address evolving public health scenarios.
Cullen said Thursday the province will not stand in the way of divisions introducing stricter measures that go over and above public health requirements.
Leadership of the teachers union expressed concern there will be a "patchwork" of rules across the province and indicated it plans to lobby the province to take a more firm stance on mask-wearing.
Brenda Brazeau, executive director of the Manitoba Association of Parent Councils, echoed similar sentiments, after her initial "speechless" reaction. "I don’t think that parents expected there to be so few (mandatory) protocols, at all," said Brazeau.
In defence of the relaxed language, Dr. Brent Roussin said Thursday that while stringent public health restrictions have been effective and necessary throughout the pandemic, they have had significant effects on people's health and the economy.
"As we begin to move our way towards a post-pandemic Manitoba, we’re also beginning to move from public health orders to public health recommendations," said Manitoba’s chief public health officer.
Roussin added the strong recommendation for masks can also be attributed to "very low" community transmission and increasing vaccine uptake.
Vaccinations will not be mandated for front-facing school staff or students, but the province has announced plans to include COVID-19 vaccines in its annual school-based immunization programs to increase uptake.
Neither the NDP nor the Manitoba Liberal party was satisfied with the province’s justification for removing the mask mandate.
Dougald Lamont of the Manitoba Liberals told reporters the province is acting as if the pandemic is over, when even the top doctor has said a fourth wave is inevitable.
"We’ve seen this plot before, and it didn’t end too well for Manitobans during the second and third waves. At this point in the pandemic, you would hope the government would’ve learned from the (reactive) mistakes they made in the past. Yet, it seems like this year’s back-to-school will be a bit of a Groundhog Day," said Wab Kinew, leader of the official Opposition.
Similarly to 2020, students are slated to start the year off in the restricted level, otherwise known as code yellow, on the province’s pandemic response system. The level signals there is low community transmission and requires classrooms be open with physical distancing whenever possible and cohorting measures.
Expectations for self-screening, handwashing and staying home when sick are intact, while practices related to positive case notification remain unchanged and rapid testing sites will continue to operate.
Transportation to and from school, however, will return to pre-pandemic procedures, with the exception of continued assigned seating for the purpose of contact tracing. Schools have the green-light to run assemblies, extracurriculars, field trips, libraries, and music programs, while staying in line with public health orders.
On the subject of ventilation, a provincial official said there will be a focus on maintaining and continuing to assess school heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Schools have been advised to inspect and upgrade their systems, but no guidance has been made to require buildings to have stand-alone air purification systems.
Also Thursday, the province released recommended changes to cohort sizes for child-care facilities, increasing them to 48 from 30 children, in addition to staff. The new guidance states physical distancing within cohorts is no longer required, but it is recommended the same staff work exclusively with the same cohort.
A revised public health document related to early childhood education is expected to be distributed in the coming weeks.
— with files from Danielle Da Silva and Carol Sanders
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press