Divergent views on mask and vaccine mandates are threatening to divide classrooms and staff rooms, especially in communities where the uptake is low.

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Divergent views on mask and vaccine mandates are threatening to divide classrooms and staff rooms, especially in communities where the uptake is low.

Some parents with anti-government views have signed petitions to revoke public-health measures.

Others are organizing via social media to storm board offices in order to make their concerns known after the province announced it would reinstate the indoor mask mandate and require school staff to be fully immunized or participate in frequent, regular testing this fall.

"My kids would have been wearing masks, regardless, because it’s the most practical way that we can help and care for those around us, but I fear that if it was not mandated, they would be the minority in school and likely ostracized for it," said Chelsea Johnston, a mother of three children — none of whom are yet to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine — in Winkler.

“My kids would have been wearing masks, regardless, because it’s the most practical way that we can help and care for those around us, but I fear that if it was not mandated, they would be the minority in school and likely ostracized for it." — Chelsea Johnston

In her Southern Health district, Johnston is an outlier as a member of the eligible population that is fully vaccinated; to date, only 35 per cent of Winkler-area residents born in 2009 or earlier have received two doses. That figure is not high enough to address Johnston’s anxieties as the mother of two children who take daily asthma medication.

Johnston acknowledged the deep divides in her community — with scientific views on one side and a combination of misinformation, distrust and anti-government-informed perspectives on the other — but said she is at a loss as to how to approach it.

"I think we have over-complicated caring for people," she said. "Our kids are listening and learning by example, and as parents in this community we need to step up and show people practically how we care and love those around us."

“Up until (the mandates), I was absolutely terrified to go into work. (Many families) have no respect for our health and our safety, because they don’t believe in it. It’s not that they hate teachers, but they literally don’t believe COVID is a real thing.” — Hanover School Division teacher

An elementary school teacher in the Garden Valley School Division, who echoed feeling relief about the new mandates, told the Free Press she is certain some of her colleagues will leave their jobs as a result. Not unlike last year, home-schooling rates in Winkler will also rise because of how strongly some families feel about public-health mandates, the teacher said.

Enrolment in Garden Valley last September fell by almost 10 per cent.

In the Hanover School Division, contrasting perspectives on public-health orders are also top of mind following Tuesday's announcement. Staff have been reminded by administrators to have compassion and to respect each others’ beliefs and values because they are role models for students.

Division includes adult students in mandate

Manitoba’s largest school board will require all of its students aged 18 and up to be fully immunized alongside employees and visitors.

Radean Carter, spokeswoman for the Winnipeg School Division, confirmed the board of trustees has passed a motion to require adult students to be fully vaccinated.

Manitoba’s largest school board will require all of its students aged 18 and up to be fully immunized alongside employees and visitors.

Radean Carter, spokeswoman for the Winnipeg School Division, confirmed the board of trustees has passed a motion to require adult students to be fully vaccinated.

“The board has indicated that they want to take as much action as they can within their governance ability to ensure the safety of students and staff,” Carter said.

The change will primarily affect students enrolled in adult-education programs, although Carter noted students up to age 21 can attend public high schools.

The province's new public-health order will require unvaccinated individuals in public-sector settings to undergo testing up to three times per week and show proof of a negative test.

Also this week, Gray Academy, an independent Jewish school, became the first school in Winnipeg to announce it will require all eligible students attending the 2021-22 school year to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

— Maggie Macintosh

"Up until (the mandates), I was absolutely terrified to go into work," said one teacher in the division. "(Many families) have no respect for our health and our safety, because they don’t believe in it. It’s not that they hate teachers, but they literally don’t believe COVID is a real thing."

The Hanover educator recalled often hearing students talk openly about disregarding restrictions to hang out in large groups. Some pupils had to be sent home because they arrived at school with symptoms and were not getting tested.

There were also daily complaints to school leaders about restrictions, said the teacher, adding she has felt "expendable" because she cannot convince all students or co-workers to trust science and fact.

In response to a tweet posted by @HanoverSD regarding the mandates, one educator in the division inquired about how the policy will affect staff "who will not be immunized." The superintendent replied that routine testing will be available, at which point the teacher followed up to ask about those who choose not to take tests.

A provincial spokesperson said in a statement detailed work is underway on the public-health order. More specifics on testing processes, costs and other related items are expected in the coming weeks.

Manitoba Teachers' Society president James Bedford.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Manitoba Teachers' Society president James Bedford.

James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, said it is his understanding that the costs for rapid testing will not be borne by educators.

The Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg, the first of its kind to announce a staff vaccine mandate last week, has released its draft policy on immunization for teachers, school and educational support staff, practicum students, bus drivers and custodial staff.

The document indicates the division will primarily accept digital or physical immunization cards, as well as secure printed provincial immunization records as proof of status. Any breach of the policy, it notes, could result in discipline up to and including termination.

Rebecca Alexandre, a substitute teacher in the Brandon School Division with her eight-year-old son Julien who will start Grade 4 at CFB Shilo's École La Source with La Division scolaire franco-manitobaine (DSFM) in September.

MATT GOERZEN/THE BRANDON SUN

Rebecca Alexandre, a substitute teacher in the Brandon School Division with her eight-year-old son Julien who will start Grade 4 at CFB Shilo's École La Source with La Division scolaire franco-manitobaine (DSFM) in September.

Rebecca Alexandre, a parent and substitute teacher, is waiting for more details from administrators in rural Manitoba before she decides whether to continue teaching and send her eight year old to school.

"I would like to see mandatory vaccination of everyone who is born in 2009 and up," said the mother from Brandon.

Alexandre added stricter cohorting, smaller class sizes and improved ventilation are all on her wish list before classes resume Sept. 7.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

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.

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