Mask use key to updated COVID-19 management in schools

·3 min read

CONSISTENT mask-use could exempt a student or school employee from a self-isolation stint — even if they are deemed a close COVID-19 contact, as the province attempts to limit learning disruptions.

Manitoba has tweaked its case management in K-12 schools that will result in more directives to self-monitor rather than self-isolate, especially among the fully vaccinated population.

Quarantine periods have also been reduced to 10 days from 14.

“We cannot say there is zero risk for kids from COVID-19. There is no real situation in our lives that presents zero risk, but we need to balance that risk,” said Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, during a virtual briefing on Tuesday.

“Having children return to in-class learning with as few disruptions as possible is the best thing for youth — not only for educational outcomes, but also for their safety, physical and mental health.”

Roussin, who was joined by deputy education minister Dana Rudy, spoke at length about the toll the pandemic has had on youth, noting a decrease in outdoor activity over the last 18 months and a strong link between screen-time and depression and anxiety.

He indicated that 0.9 per cent of cases recorded among youth aged 18 and under in Manitoba — 13,829, as of Sept. 6 — were hospitalized, while that same rate for residents aged 20 to 29 was 3.5 per cent and 35 per cent for the population aged 80 and older.

It is noteworthy that in-school transmission has been limited, which is why the province has loosened protocols for close contacts, Roussin said. Previously, officials only took into account whether a contact was wearing a medical mask or not when exempting them from self-isolation.

Also during the Tuesday briefing, Rudy shared that unvaccinated staff, volunteers and practicum students will soon be required to take frequent antigen tests via their divisions. When testing supplies arrive, these individuals will be able to do two tests at home and a supervised test at a school site weekly, she said.

The teachers union, which has been working out testing protocols with the school boards association, has made clear that educators should be able to maintain their privacy when it comes to their immunization status.

Union president James Bedford said he was happy the province acknowledged the importance of mental health with updated measures Tuesday.

“You’ve got to look after the well-being of the student to be successful at educating the student, and the data on student mental health was very concerning,” said Bedford, who represents upwards of 16,000 members at the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.

The province is providing details to improve transparency, while a new school outbreak definition will allow for consistent reporting, Roussin said.

An outbreak now means three or more school-associated cases have been identified within two weeks in a specified cohort, each one was potentially acquired at school, and the cases are linked to a known case in an educational setting or extracurricular.

Officials chose three cases because it was not uncommon for there to be two unconnected cases in a cohort last year when community transmission was high, said Roussin, adding the province does not want to require unnecessary quarantine periods.

The Manitoba NDP and Liberals denounced the timing of the announcement for creating more confusion.

“Teachers and school leaders spent all summer getting ready for the school year. Why couldn’t the PCs do the same?” New Democrat Nello Altomare said in a statement.

Te updated protocols make it easier to “sweep outbreaks under the rug,” and do not address the fact that parents have been doing a better job of tracking school cases than officials, Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said in a statement.

Manitoba’s COVID-19 school dashboard, which is updated twice weekly, indicates there have been 56 school-associated cases since Sept. 7.

There are 69 cases in a public spreadsheet of exposures compiled by an anonymous parent who is doing crowdsourcing via @CovidSchool on Twitter.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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