Seven Oaks School Division is preparing for a rise in exposures of highly contagious variants of COVID-19 in its schools.
The division plans to order 75,000 medical-grade respirators — enough to equip each of its teachers, educational assistants and other school employees with one mask daily for the rest of the school year. The first batch of masks, which arrived Wednesday, will be distributed this week.
“With the rise in variants, and they seem to be hitting younger age groups, we are worried about the vulnerability of our staff. This is one additional precaution that we could take, so we’re inclined to take it,” said superintendent Brian O’Leary.
A total of 560 cases of highly contagious variants — 88 per cent of which involve the B.1.1.7 variant — have been confirmed in Manitoba.
Research suggests younger adults have experienced more severe symptoms and outcomes after contracting variants, in comparison to the original COVID-19 strain.
The bulk of Seven Oaks’ approximately 1,500 employees are in the 30 to 50 age range, O’Leary said, noting the division wants to provide staff with maximum protection.
He added, “Our staff have been doing an incredible job throughout (the pandemic) and I wish we could do more for them.”
Seven Oaks sourced the masks independently, at a price tag of approximately one dollar per respirator, because the division wasn’t able to secure its supply through the province.
N95 respirators, which are often used in health-care settings, form a seal around the nose and mouth of a wearer to protect them from hazardous airborne particles. When worn properly, they provide 95 per cent protection against exposure to respiratory viruses, according to Health Canada.
The province’s top doctor has yet to recommend front-line school employees wear them; staff who interact with different student cohorts are required to wear disposable medical masks at present, while others can wear non-medical face coverings.
“While we want to make sure teachers and school staff are protected, public health officials tell us that exposures and transmission in schools is different from that in health-care settings, and doesn’t require the N95 masks,” Education Minister Cliff Cullen said in an email statement Wednesday.
Cullen said the province dedicated $12 million for masks and personal protective equipment through the safe schools fund in 2020.
School staff has been given medical masks, face shields, gloves, and disposable medical gowns, among other items, throughout the pandemic.
Dion Delorme, president of Educational Assistants of Seven Oaks, welcomed the additional N95 protection Wednesday.
“This is definitely a step in the right direction,” said Delorme.
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society said it is focusing advocacy efforts on making front-line educators a priority in the COVID-19 immunization queue.
“We’re disappointed that another day has gone by and (there have been) no announcements about prioritizing teachers and other adults working in schools for the vaccine,” said Nathan Martindale, vice-president of MTS, following an education news conference unrelated to vaccines Tuesday.
There have been at least 44 variant exposures in schools since March 1. Public health officials, however, insist schools are doing an exceptional job of limiting transmission, which they say is happening primarily at gatherings outside school hours.
The province has touted stricter contact-tracing protocols and longer isolation periods as proactive measures to limit variant transmission in schools.
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press