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The Manitoba government is strongly encouraging parents to send their children to school in masks come September, but masks will not be required in classrooms.

“The safety and health of students and staff, and their families, are the priority as Manitoba returns to in-class learning,” Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said Thursday.

The province released its guidance and protocols for parents and teachers detailing what’s required when schools open their doors to students on Sept. 8.

In-school classes were suspended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Manitoba has had among the lowest COVID-19 numbers in the country, but it has seen a significant increase in the last few weeks, with outbreaks linked to Hutterite communities as well as a cluster in Brandon, where 31 employees have tested positive at the Maple Leaf Foods meat-processing plant.

The government reported 25 new cases in the province on Thursday.

Last month, a first draft of Manitoba’s school re-opening plan laid out three possible scenarios that took into account how the pandemic was progressing in the province. At that time, the province did not recommend students wear masks. More than 70 schools provided feedback.

Government officials chose the moderate plan, which requires students to physically distance or stay in cohorts made of their immediate classmates.

Individual schools are to release their own specific plans next week, Goertzen said.

School divisions are also being asked to find funds for the measures within their current budgets. As the province sees need for more precautions, Goertzen said costs will be covered.

Chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the province will provide masks to school divisions, as well as other personal protective equipment.

He said masks are not mandatory in schools but are strongly recommended for students in Grades 5 to 12. However, masks will be required on school buses and parents are being encouraged to drive their kids to school as much as possible.

“We expect Manitobans to follow recommendations, said Roussin.

He added that a mandatory mask rule isn’t off the table.

Manitoba Teachers’ Society vice-president, Nathan Martindale, said the province’s plan doesn’t go far enough and masks should be mandatory.

“It makes no sense that masks are required for the bus ride to school and then the students can take them off once they are at school.”

Educators are also very concerned about class sizes and the number of available substitute teachers, he added. The society is calling for a gradual return of students to schools and access to rapid testing for teachers.

“We are looking for the government to step up,” Martindale said.

The Opposition New Democrats also called for mandatory masks in schools. NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the Progressive Conservative government should hire more teachers to tackle the issue of class sizes.

Parents are also being asked to screen their children for COVID-19 symptoms every morning and keep them home if they aren’t feeling well.

Physical distancing will be enforced at school with groups using different entrances, one-way marked hallways and space between desks and tables.

Roussin said officials have to prepare for infections within schools. Entire cohorts of students may have to isolate at home if a classmate tests positive. The closure of a school would be the last resort.

“The idea is to not require the closure of an entire school should we start to see cases,” Roussin said.

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