As the province considers requiring face coverings in classrooms, at least one school division is ordering thousands of masks for staff members and older students.
The St. James Assiniboia School Division announced this week it will supply two non-medical masks to each employee and student who enter middle schools and high schools in west Winnipeg next month. Division staff, including teachers, educational assistants and custodians, will be given face shields.
The personal protective equipment is not mandatory at present, but superintendent Mike Wake said the division wants to make sure its community members feel safe when they return to school.
"The board was very adamant about trying to initially eliminate the issue of equity and to help our families out because a lot of our families have been affected by COVID from an economic standpoint," said Wake, who oversees operations at 26 public schools in which 8,500 students are enrolled.
In line with the advice of Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's top doctor, the division recommends masks be worn when physical distancing is not possible "and for an extra level of caution and comfort."
Last week, Roussin said Manitoba would look at practices in other jurisdictions before taking further steps.
So far, Ontario and Alberta have mandated grades 4 to 12 students to wear masks starting in September. The Public Health Agency of Canada has also recommended children over the age of 10 wear face coverings.
Ellen Bees, a middle school teacher in Winnipeg, said she hopes the province will consider mandating their use, following the federal guidelines. "I want my school to be as safe as possible for my students, my colleagues and myself," Bees wrote in a message Thursday.
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society echoed those comments, saying the union will continue to be guided by local public health practices and protocols.
School reopening guidelines issued by Toronto-based SickKids Hospital favour requiring older students to wear masks when physical distancing is not possible. The guidelines suggest they should not be required when community transmission is low, but educators should always respect a student's choice. "Any recommendation or requirement to wear (non-medical masks) needs to address issues around equitable access to masks," the authors add.
Mask-mandate or not, Wendy Bloomfield, chairwoman of the Seine River School Division, said the province should provide direction so there is consistency. "My personal belief is, until we have a better understanding of what the heck this virus is, it’s just another preventative measure to keep kids and staff safe," said Bloomfield.
The division south of the city is one of several in the province that has purchased disposable masks for its schools to give community members if they start showing symptoms.
“My personal belief is, until we have a better understanding of what the heck this virus is, it’s just another preventative measure to keep kids and staff safe." –Wendy Bloomfield
Inside city limits, Seven Oaks School Division anticipates many of its older students will use masks, and it plans to supply them to students upon request.
The Division scolaire franco-manitobaine, River East Transcona and Pembina Trails school divisions will supply personal protective equipment to staff who support students with additional needs in close quarters. The Winnipeg School Division said it is finalizing plans.
Before making any decisions, the Louis Riel School Division is surveying community members; although superintendent Christian Michalik said in a statement Thursday he expects the "informed wearing of masks by staff and students in specific instances will be a part of our overall return."
Back in St. James Assiniboia, mask-wearing will be a part of the Pfahl family routine come September.
Jackielynn Pfahl said all nine of her children — who range in age from two to 17 — will be sent to school equipped with masks, face shields, gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. She said Thursday she doesn’t want to risk anything.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.