As highly contagious strains of COVID-19 dominate daily case counts and more children and teens are being infected, teachers are scrambling for clear direction to keep themselves and their students safe.

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As highly contagious strains of COVID-19 dominate daily case counts and more children and teens are being infected, teachers are scrambling for clear direction to keep themselves and their students safe.

The lack of information coming from the province on plans to prioritize teacher vaccinations has been "confusing and frustrating," said Manitoba Teachers' Society president James Bedford.

Teachers recently learned they are not expected — in some situations — to follow self-isolation orders if someone in their household is a close contact of a confirmed case involving a highly contagious variant. The exemption applies only if the household member has no symptoms and if the teacher can isolate from them within the home.

Manitoba Teachers' Society president James Bedford said the province's poor communication with teachers and schools throughout the pandemic has been compounded by confusion over the vaccine rollout. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Manitoba Teachers' Society president James Bedford said the province's poor communication with teachers and schools throughout the pandemic has been compounded by confusion over the vaccine rollout. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Until last week, teachers were not allowed to be in school if they had a possible link to a variant case.

The provincial policy was quietly changed April 13 as quickly-spreading variants were overtaking the previously dominant COVID-19 strain.

As of Tuesday, there were 244 cases, including 50 staff members, in 126 Manitoba schools, according to provincial data.

Poor communication with teachers and schools throughout the pandemic has been compounded by confusion over the vaccine rollout, Bedford said.

"We've been struggling all year with public health in terms of the level of information with respect to infections in schools," he said.

"We've been struggling all year with public health in terms of the level of information with respect to infections in schools" ‐ James Bedford, Manitoba Teachers' Society president

Manitoba's plan to start offering vaccines to workers and residents in high-risk areas, including teachers, is expected to be unveiled Friday, but the union hasn't been consulted on any plans and is anticipating a "confusing process" for the rest of the school year, he said.

For months, the union has been calling for teachers and all school staff to be given priority access to vaccines, but that hasn't happened, even as pharmacies and clinics began vaccinating anyone age 40 and older this week.

That's left school staff confused about which route to pursue as they wait for an anticipated vaccine rollout geared toward them, Bedford said.

The province started publicly releasing data on school case counts twice-weekly in February via an online dashboard, but much of the work to track the spread of the virus in schools has been crowd-sourced, using notification letters sent by school officials in combination with the provincial data. Recently, the province stopped indicating whether school cases involved highly contagious variant strains.

Teachers' self-isolation exemption changed as variants dominate

Now that more infectious strains of COVID-19 are becoming the dominant strain in Manitoba, the province's self-isolation exemption for teachers has been expanded.

Superintendents were informed of the April 13 change in a conference call, a provincial spokesperson said, and an existing online bulletin was altered to reflect the change regarding variants of concern, but a new bulletin wasn't issued and the change wasn't publicly announced.

Now that more infectious strains of COVID-19 are becoming the dominant strain in Manitoba, the province's self-isolation exemption for teachers has been expanded.

Superintendents were informed of the April 13 change in a conference call, a provincial spokesperson said, and an existing online bulletin was altered to reflect the change regarding variants of concern, but a new bulletin wasn't issued and the change wasn't publicly announced.

Manitobans have been ordered to self-isolate any time a member of their household is sick or awaiting COVID-19 test results, but that rule doesn't apply to teachers who aren't sick themselves and who meet certain other criteria. Until last week, one of the criteria was that teachers had to stay home if someone in their household was a close contact of a confirmed case involving a highly contagious variant. Now, teachers don't have to isolate even if their household member is a close contact of a confirmed variant case, as long as neither the teacher nor their household member has symptoms. The updated policy is here.

The province set out the following public health guidelines for teachers who are working while their household member awaits COVID-19 test results or has been notified they are a close contact:

- Teachers must wear a medical mask at all times; any break where the mask is removed must be done in isolation of staff and students;

- Teachers must not have any symptoms themselves;

- The close contact or person awaiting test results must be asymptomatic and must be able to self-isolate within the home away from the teacher; and

- Teachers should still self-isolate when not at work.

When asked if the province plans to announce more guidance for teachers and schools about how to combat the spread of variants in the third wave, the provincial spokesperson said existing measures suffice.

"Public health measures in schools align with public health restrictions and advice in the broader community in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in schools. Schools have these robust safety protocols in place including physical distancing and mask wearing. These measures continue to protect against COVID-19, including variants of concern," the statement said.

-Katie May

The Manitoba teacher who took over volunteer tracking duties on Twitter about three months ago via the @mb_covid account told the Free Press she receives several messages daily from teachers who are hungry for more transparent information about what's happening in their schools.

The teacher agreed to be interviewed but asked that she not be identified because of job-security concerns. She said she and other teachers have already had to learn different teaching methods during the pandemic, they go to work every day amid the uncertainty and they still have to piece together information about spread in schools.

"A way to take good care of people would be just to be more transparent and more proactive," the teacher said.

"This is the most anxious I've felt this whole pandemic, because it feels like the public-health situation is changing so rapidly but the response isn't, and... I don't know who is trying to take care of us right now."

 

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
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Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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