Manitoba government officials updated the public Tuesday on their new standards for tracking and monitoring COVID-19 cases in K-12 schools.
Public-health officials are now considering the immunization status of staff and students when determining isolation requirements for close contacts since vaccines weren’t widely available throughout the previous school year.
Self-isolation requirements for close contacts have dropped from 14 days to 10 days, with testing being recommended at day seven.
However, isolation requirements may change if higher community transmission or outbreaks are at play.
According to a Monday afternoon news release, the province’s definition of what constitutes a "school case" and "school outbreak" is also being updated to better align with current COVID safety guidelines.
A school outbreak is considered to be a scenario that involves at least three school-associated cases being identified within 14 days of each other in students, teachers or staff within a specified cohort.
"The new definition will allow more consistent reporting of outbreaks," the news release read. "Declaration of an outbreak allows further preventive measures to be put in place to reduce the risk of ongoing transmission."
A school case is now considered to be a staff member, student or volunteer who was present in the school during the 14 days prior to symptom onset, (or a positive test date if asymptomatic) or within 10 days after illness onset (or a positive test date if asymptomatic).
During an online news conference, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin told reporters that Monday’s announcement was designed to help maintain transparency with the public.
Roussin said they all need to be on the same page if they want to keep students safe while attending school in person, which he views as preferable to remote learning.
"Certainly, we cannot say there is zero risk for kids [when it comes to] COVID-19," he said.
"But we need to balance that risk of COVID with the risk of [social] isolation that has played on the mental and physical well-being of children."
As of Monday afternoon, the province has registered a total of 56 COVID cases in K-12 schools since the 2021-22 academic year began on Sept. 7.
Several of these exposures can be found right here in the Brandon School Division, with Betty Gibson School, Riverheights School, École O’Kelly School and Vincent Massey High School all registering cases throughout the last two weeks.
However, Roussin maintains that the rate of broader community transmission in Manitoba is equal to or less than the transmission found in schools, with school-age children also being far less likely to suffer severe outcomes after getting infected with COVID.
When asked what it would take for the province to transition students back to remote learning this fall, Roussin responded by saying that a variety of factors would need to converge at the same time.
"The many indicators we have related to community transmission will certainly be taken into account," he said, mentioning variables like vaccine uptake rates and outbreak frequency in schools.
"So it’s really difficult to give a set definition of when … the risk of keeping them in school outweighs the benefit."
However, not everyone was happy with the province’s latest update on COVID protocols and standards for K-12 schools.
By dropping this announcement two weeks into the school year, NDP education critic Nello Altomare believes the change will only create "more chaos and uncertainty" for school staff and families.
"Teachers and school leaders spent all summer getting ready for the school year. Why couldn’t the PCs do the same?" Altomare wrote in a statement. "Families deserve a government that does the work ahead of time to keep our kids safe and keep schools open."
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont echoed Altomare’s sentiments about the province’s poor handling of the back-to-school plan, especially since they knew about the fourth wave of the COVID pandemic well in advance of the 2021-22 academic year.
"The PCs need to get their act together because there is little evidence they have learned anything from the second and third waves, which were among the worst in Canada," Lamont wrote in a statement.
» Twitter: @KyleDarbyson