Manitoba Teachers’ Society wants mask mandate to include K-Grade 3 students

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society is calling on the province to “restore teacher and public confidence in school safety” by mandating masks for all students in the K-12 public school system.

Currently, masks are mandatory for students in grades 4-12. MTS wants that requirement extended to students in kindergarten to Grade 3 as well, saying physical distancing is not always possible in that age group.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, has said the risk of transmission in schools is low. The teachers society says, however, that more than a quarter of public health investigations into COVID-19 positive cases involving children in November remain outstanding.

“Public health has not determined the source of the transmission” in those cases, the society said in a news release on Wednesday.

Manitoba had recorded 675 cases of COVID-19 in schools as of Nov. 17 — the last date for which total numbers available, due to data-entry delays — according to the province. A total of 513 of those cases were students and 162 were staff members.

“Extending the mask mandate to kids in kindergarten to Grade 3 will provide added protection to students and teachers and help in stopping community transmission,” said MTS president James Bedford.

Public school students in every grade level are already required to wear masks while riding the school bus, and everyone in Manitoba is required to wear a mask in indoor public places under restrictions at the red, or critical, level currently in place.

Bedford says it only makes sense for K-3 students to wear them in school as well.

“Teachers will always press for better safety measures,” said Bedford. “The government has a responsibility in making our schools as safe as they can be. Quite frankly, our schools should be the safest place.”

In August, the MTS called for masks to be mandatory for all students, staff and visitors in public schools. That led to the requirement for those in grades 4 to 12 to wear them, but “it’s not enough anymore,” Bedford said.

Principals asked to do contact tracing

He also took exception to the fact that, in some school divisions, principals are being asked to perform contact tracing duties on COVID-19 positive cases in their schools.

The union is opposed to offloading public health work onto principals, Bedford said.

“Asking principals to make public health judgments to advise courses of action outside of their expertise and training is both unfair and irresponsible.”

That would also intensify the workload for principals at a time when they face unique problems in managing staff, students, community, supervision, operations, and in-person and remote programming in this pandemic crisis, Bedford added.