The bar for declaring a COVID-19 outbreak in a Manitoba school allows for the possibility of transmission in cohorts — which can include up to 75 students — before public health announces one.
At the start of the school year, public health officials said an outbreak would indicate at least two confirmed cases had been connected in a school.
This week, when asked about the latest definition, the province told the Free Press officials have been declaring an outbreak at their "discretion" when there is further epidemiologically linked spread to staff or students beyond close contacts or a cohort initially identified as exposed from a case since the fall.
A cohort refers to a group that spends most of the school day together in a classroom, but it can include up to 75 pupils who have recess or do other activities together.
"Whether the definition of ‘school outbreak’ is staying the same or is being changed, the basic point is: Why? Why have you adopted these criteria for closing schools? What is the scientific basis for closing schools so quickly? Or for closing schools so slowly?" said Arthur Schafer, founding director of the University of Manitoba's Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics.
Schafer, who studies bioethics, said decision-making about closing schools profoundly affects lives and yet the province has not provided clear justification for such practices.
A request for an interview with either the chief public health officer, or deputy chief public health officer was declined Tuesday.
"Throughout the pandemic, public health measures have been refined to help officials address the current situation and protect Manitobans," a provincial spokesperson said in an email Monday, while noting the outbreak criteria was in the process of being published online.
"Any teacher will tell you, confusion, uncertainty ‐ they’re not good classroom management tools. If you want excellent classroom management tools, be open, be honest, be forthright… I don’t think we have that right now throughout the system." ‐ James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society
The spokesperson added there can be multiple cases in a school that are linked to exposures outside of the building, which is where the province’s top doctor has said most transmission has occurred.
While 15 schools have fully shuffled to remote learning amid growing caseloads and staff crunches, there are only three active school outbreaks, according to a provincial dashboard. On Tuesday, the province confirmed new outbreaks at Holy Cross School and King’s School.
The president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society said he was unaware Tuesday of what it takes for officials to declare a school outbreak. "This is part of the frustration. There is no direct communication with public health," said James Bedford, who represents more than 16,000 teachers.
Amid concerns about lagging dashboard figures and rising cases, the union is calling for a universal transition to remote learning in Winnipeg.
"Any teacher will tell you, confusion, uncertainty — they’re not good classroom management tools. If you want excellent classroom management tools, be open, be honest, be forthright… I don’t think we have that right now throughout the system," Bedford said.
Lauren Hope, a teacher who co-founded the Safe September MB movement, said a stricter definition about when a class or cohort should isolate is required, given the highly infectious nature of COVID-19 variants.
Hope said she remains confused about why the province continues to pretend "we have a special kind of COVID-19 in Manitoba that is not airborne and does not spread in schools."
The keys to building trust in risk communications include: maintaining strong relationships with public unions, clearly communicating practices with stakeholders, and being clear and accountable about scientific evidence that supports practice and change, said Josh Greenberg, an expert in crisis and risk communications at Carleton University in Ottawa.
"While I think it’s understandable that definitions and frameworks and policies change, it’s absolutely essential to be as clear and open and transparent about the reasons for those changes and what they mean for public safety," Greenberg said.
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.