WINNIPEG -- Manitoba's education minister welcomed students and staff back to their classrooms on Tuesday for the first time since schools shut down in March, saying as students begin the new school year, there is a need for the province to be even more transparent in reporting COVID-19 cases.

During a press conference at the Manitoba Legislative Building, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said public health and school officials have been working throughout the summer to prepare for the students' return.

"It is a very significant day, there is no question about it," he said. "When the in-class learning was suspended before spring break in March, we really didn't know what we were going into or when we'd be coming out of it."

He said schools are taking a number of safety precautions to help keep students and staff safe, including physical distancing in classrooms; mandatory masks for students in Grades 4 to 12; and staggered lunch breaks and recesses.

But as students begin the school year, Goertzen said it is important the province is transparent in reporting cases of COVID-19 within classrooms.

"We will find cases of COVID within schools because schools are part of society and we do have COVID in society," he said. "To me, the important part of that is being quickly transparent with those who might be impacted within that individual school."

He said when a case is identified within a cohort of students there will be contact tracing within 24 hours, and those who have been identified as a close contact will be notified. Goertzen added there will then be a broader notification to parents in the school, and to all Manitobans.

"I think we need to be transparent with the public more generally about where cases are being found. Not because we want to create fear, but the exact opposite," he said. "I believe that public health and school officials are going to do a very good job of when they find cases within schools, of reacting to those cases, isolating those cases and assuring that they don't spread more broadly."

Goertzen said he thinks more information will provide confidence, not fear.

The province has faced criticism for its slow release of information.

The province provided information guides and resources to parents on Sept. 2, days before classes resumed.

Goertzen said the province would have liked to provide the information sooner, but wanted to make sure it was right.

"A lot of it is hindsight – if we could rewind the clock to the summer of last year and say ' well, we're going to have a pandemic next year' I think the planning would have been different. There could have been more information that could have gone out more quickly to parents on scheduling; we could have looked at how staggered classes could have happened," he said.

"The information eventually came. Would we have liked it to be sooner? Yeah, but we can’t plan a year in advance when you don't have a pandemic every year."

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