Parents of unvaccinated students nervous about removal of mask mandate in Manitoba schools

WINNIPEG — When Manitoba students step into the classroom in September, they’ll be returning to what the province calls near normal operations.

That has some including Harrison Bergen, 11, pretty excited after periods of pandemic-induced remote learning over the past year and a half.

“I didn’t mind it but at the same time it was kind of annoying not being able to see my friends,” Bergen said. “That’s one of the main reasons I like going to school—friends.”

Stacy Swanson, Harrison’s mom, said the return to school brings mixed feelings as a parent.

“I would like for the kids to have extracurricular activities,” Swanson said. “I think that’s really important for their social and emotional well-being. Little bit nervous about no mask mandate.”

The province said masks are recommended for all students, staff and visitors but they won’t be mandated.

It’s move that surprised Andrew Halayko. The University of Manitoba physiology and internal medicine professor, who studies respiratory infections and disease, said mask use combined with cohorts and physical distancing has worked.

He wonders why the province is abandoning a face covering requirement at this stage, with younger children ineligible to receive vaccines.

“To kind of step away from that at this point seems premature knowing that clinical trials are ongoing,” Halayko said. “Kids 12 and under are presumably going to be eligible for vaccination in the next six months.”

“Erring on the side of safety rather than rolling the dice and taking a risk seems to make the most sense to me.”

While divisions or schools can make masks mandatory, they must eliminate barriers to attendance.

Nathan Martindale, vice president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, said the union is calling on the government to continue requiring masks in schools due in part to concerns over the spread of the more contagious Delta variant.

“It would just be a step backwards to take those masks off and then down the road in a month, if the cases went back up, to try to put those masks back on,” Martindale said.

The province said it’s expected COVID-19 infections will continue to occur in the community and schools.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, said the benefits of in-person learning are significant. He also echoed comments he made earlier this week that children are less likely to transmit the virus that causes COVID-19 and are at lower risk of severe illness.

“As our vaccines continue to increase, we’re going to see a decline in the severe illnesses caused by COVID-19,” Roussin said. “So we need to focus less on daily case counts and more on those severe outcomes as we move forward.”

He said so far more than 65 per cent of children aged 12–17 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“When most people 12 years and older are immunized, exposures at schools are less likely to occur,” Roussin said. “When community transmission is lower, all this transmission is much less likely to occur. So as a result, schools will be able to return to close to normal activities. It’s very important to get the kids back into school in as much of a normal fashion as possible.”

That’s little comfort to parents with concerns about sending their unvaccinated children back to school with no mask mandate.

“As a parent I’m extremely nervous just with the variant that’s going around,” said Logan Oxenham, whose daughter is headed into grade one. “My daughter can’t be vaccinated yet, she’s turning six.”

Yingi Wang, whose daughter is headed into grade two after learning from home last year, said she wanted the mask mandate to remain in place.

“I hope the school will make it mandatory for everyone to have a mask,” Wang said.

Cohorts will still be used for kindergarten to grade six students to reduce potential exposure in children not yet eligible for vaccination.

Bergen, who’s turning 12, will soon be able to get immunized, easing some of the concern that comes with the return to school.

“Grade seven is going to be weird,” he said.

The province said extracurricular activities will be permitted under public guidance and orders.

Officials also said notifications of COVID-19 cases in schools will continue and that the public dashboard will resume in September.  

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