U of M sticks with mask mandate in fall

By Maggie Macintosh
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Winnipeg Free Press

Many post-secondary institutes have eased COVID-19 protocols, but Manitoba’s largest university will require visitors to continue wearing high-quality and well-fitted masks inside campus buildings in the fall.

The University of Manitoba announced this month its mask mandate will remain intact when students and academics begin the 2022-23 academic year with a widespread return of face-to-face learning.

“We are beginning to see discussions in a number of provinces about preparations for possible additional (COVID-19) surges in fall. As a result, we have decided that the existing masking mandate will continue in September,” states a notice on the U of M website.

While KN95 masks are “highly recommended,” visitors will be permitted to wear three-ply medical masks. Both types of face coverings will be available at campus distribution sites.

Andrew Halayko, a professor of internal medicine at the U of M, said the “easy decision” would be to toe the line.”

Manitoba rolled back virtually all public health measures, including its mask mandate across society, on March 15. Since then, face coverings have only been deemed necessary in health-care facilities.

“I’m impressed that the University of Manitoba has not chosen the easy decision,” said Halayko, a Canada Research Chair in lung pathobiology and treatment at the U of M.

“They’re showing real leadership. They are basing this decision on scientific evidence that masks do decrease transmission of the virus and the reality that we are in a seventh wave globally.”

New exceptions to the U of M policy include instructors who are actively teaching, as long as they can maintain at least two metres between themselves and students, and other university employees who can stay physically distanced at their seated workspace or have a cubicle with a physical barrier separating them from colleagues.

Despite those changes, the public health measure is slated to be the strictest of its kind on a major campus in the province for the fall semester.

Red River College Polytechnic and Brandon University are encouraging indoor mask-wearing indefinitely, with leaders monitoring COVID-19 levels in their respective communities.

The University of Winnipeg and Université de Saint-Boniface have yet to announce fall plans, although they both currently require masks in some capacity.

The Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations, which represents roughly 1,600 academic staff at various higher-learning facilities, committed to supporting ongoing face-covering use on campuses as the province eased requirements.

A March 14 union motion — which passed unanimously — stated, “MOFA believes that campus mask mandates should remain in place and that all staff and students who test positive for SARS-CoV-2 should be required to stay off campus.”

For the most part, students have become accustomed to wearing masks to school, said Jaron Rykiss, president of U of M’s undergraduate students union, known as UMSU.

“Any measures to keep our student body safe are measures that we, as UMSU, support,” Rykiss said. “But we did hear from a couple of students who disagreed with the (policy).”

Neither UMSU nor Halayko was consulted about U of M’s decision. However, the professor said he is proud to work at U of M in light of the announcement.

Halayko said it is extremely unlikely mandatory mask-wearing will become part of the norm for students and staff who attend and work at universities in the coming years, but it is prudent at present because officials are still only beginning to understand COVID-19 and emerging variants.

“I find myself adjusting a mask that I’m not wearing many times because I’m so used to it at this point,” he said.