A traditional game of tag is the latest schoolyard staple to be added to a list of activities that are off limits in the Louis Riel School Division amid the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside close-contact sports and high-fives.
Recent inquiries about whether the touch-and-go game can be played safely at recess and during phys-ed prompted administrators to take a stance.
"You can’t play tag without coming into close proximity and in the excitement of the tag game, that close proximity can be problematic — even when wearing a mask," said superintendent Christian Michalik.
Michalik said close interactions between students playing tag quickly add up and could result in large groups having to self-isolate if a COVID-19 case is identified in a school, noting the definition of a close contact has been updated.
A close contact is now defined as anyone who has been within less than two metres of an infectious positive case for at least 15 cumulative minutes during a day, even if they wore a non-medical mask, rather than 15 minutes of consecutive contact.
Students and staff who have any close proximity to a case via hug or by sharing food are also now deemed close contacts.
In addition to setting up desks two metres apart and promoting mask-wearing outdoors, adjusting and swapping close-contact games and sports to allow for physical distancing in division schools is another safety measure, Michalik said.
After learning some of his former teacher colleagues were told they could no longer play tag last week, Grant McManes said his immediate thought was that his former employer was being overprotective.
"Tag is, by definition, one of the best socially distanced games we can have because the whole idea is you tag someone and run away from them," said McManes, who retired as the division’s healthy living co-ordinator in December.
"You can’t play tag without coming into close proximity and in the excitement of the tag game, that close proximity can be problematic ‐ even when wearing a mask." – Superintendent Christian Michalik.
"Outdoors, with masks on, gloves and mitts on, (prohibiting) touching someone and running away just doesn’t seem logical."
McManes helped compile a list of safe pandemic activities for phys-ed instructors, many of whom have been asked to teach outside this year, at the start of the 2020-21 school year.
He said he feels badly for teachers who continue to lose tools from their toolboxes. Tag, he added, is an effective warmup for kids that doesn’t require any sanitization of equipment.
A Manitoba Education spokesperson confirmed there is no policy directive about tag at present, while the Physical and Health Educators of Manitoba collective did not respond to a request for comment.
Michalik said the division is being vigilant rather than overprotective.
"As fun as tag is, I would choose another option that doesn't involve kids potentially falling on each other and grabbing each other, because they’ll be breathing heavily, at the same time." – Epidemiologist Cynthia Carr
"That doesn’t mean we’re killjoys and not having fun," he said, adding that many teachers are conducting yoga this year, while others are stocking up on two-metre-long pool noodles to play a socially distanced form of tag.
Epidemiologist Cynthia Carr backed the stance Tuesday, saying it is not worth the potential risk — as tiny as it may be, given the virus looks for every opportunity to spread and there are concerns of transmission in cold weather and new infectious variants are appearing.
"As fun as tag is, I would choose another option that doesn't involve kids potentially falling on each other and grabbing each other, because they’ll be breathing heavily, at the same time," said Carr, founder of EPI Research Inc.
Carr said it would be beneficial to invest in pool testing or to do other surveillance to find out how the virus is spreading among children in Manitoba.
"We’re making so many decisions about kids that can impact them emotionally, socially, academically based on the knowledge of community spread, which is really important, but it would be nice if we could… understand more about the rates of the virus in our young people," she added.
Since September, there have been 2,278 confirmed COVID-19 cases among school staff and students in the province, with two additional cases pending at present. Students make up more than 75 per cent of these cases.
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.