WINNIPEG -- The union representing teachers in Manitoba wants the provincial government to make masks mandatory for all Kindergarten to Grade 12 students in the province.

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS) made the announcement Wednesday morning, saying it wants the decision made as physical distancing is not always possible for students in Kindergarten to Grade 3.

“Extending the mask mandate to kids in Kindergarten to Grade 3 will provide added protection to students and teachers and help in stopping community transmission,” said MTS President James Bedford in a statement.

Currently, masks are mandatory for students in Grades 4-12 in Manitoba while inside schools. Kindergarten to Grade 3 students must wear masks while riding the school bus, but masks are optional for those grades in schools.

Masks are also mandatory in indoor public places across Manitoba under the current Code Red restrictions.

“Our students (in Kindergarten to Grade 3) are not mandated to wear a mask in a classroom, where there might be 15 or 20 students in that classroom, but when the same child accompanies a parent to a drugstore, the mask is mandated,” Bedford said.

According to the MTS, there have been 675 cases of COVID-19 in schools as of Nov. 17. Of those cases, 513 were students and 162 were staff members.

The society said principals are also performing contact tracing on cases in some divisions, which it said increases their workload during an already stressful time in schools.

“Asking principals to make public health judgments to advise courses of action outside of their expertise and training is both unfair and irresponsible,” Bedford said in a statement.

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen announced remote learning for Grades 7 to 12 after the winter break from Jan. 4 to 15.

Kindergarten to Grade 6 students will still go to school, but the option for remote learning will be available.

However, Goertzen said there would be no extension of the mask mandate to younger grades at this time, which he said was based on advice from Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer.

“Dr. Roussin, I think, has articulated at different times on why he doesn’t feel that it is a necessity or an important thing to do at this time,” he said, noting they will continue to follow public health for advice on masks in school.