WINNIPEG -- According to a post on The Manitoba Teachers’ Society website, there are new rules for teachers and education assistants on when it is okay to come to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Public Health has confirmed that asymptomatic teachers, with a household member who is symptomatic, are exempt from self-isolation orders, as long as the teacher wears a medical mask,” the post reads.

It goes on to say the exemption was already applied to health care workers and first responders, and it has been expanded to include teachers and educational assistants.

There is also an explanation that in all exemption cases, staff must wear a medical mask and follow all other public health measures.

A provincial spokesperson told CTV News that public health officials are advising that entire households need to isolate if any one person living in the home awaiting a COVID-19 test result.

“The symptomatic individual needs to stay in their own room and, if possible, use their own bathroom and not use common areas,” they said in an email.

However, there are exemptions in place for asymptomatic household members if they are a health-care worker or first responders. This exemption applies to teachers and educational assistants provided medical masks are worn, they explained.

 “Teachers, and those required to support in class learning at schools, are critical service workers and public health was advised that the mandatory self-isolation rules was putting exceptional strain on staffing,” the spokesperson explained.

“We have confirmed with Public Health that the exemption for teachers and educational assistants may also be considered for custodians and bus drivers, if they are essential to keeping schools open and cannot be replaced.”

As the entire province of Manitoba prepares to move into the critical or red level on the province’s pandemic response system in the coming days, schools are to remain open.

The news release from Tuesday explains the decision to keep schools from K-12 and daycares operating. In it, Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, noted that there has not been widespread transmission among children, students, and staff.

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society shared this link for teachers to follow if symptomatic.

James Bedford, president of The Manitoba Teachers’ Society, told CTV News this was announced to superintendents Monday.

“Superintendents were providing information to their employees, their employees were questioning the information, and of course turned to their union for additional answers,” he said.

Bedford said The MTS inquired about the isolation changes through pubic health and it was confirmed to them mid-morning Tuesday.

He explained that this issue is addressing an acute substitute teacher shortage.

“It sort of began last week when it became very evident to us from some of our locals that there as a significant lag time between a teacher going for a COVID-19 test and getting results,” he said.

“We were following the advice of public health and members were staying home and self-isolating as public health told them to.”

In conjunction with this, he said the MTS was hearing this was causing huge strains on the supply of substitute teachers.

“It became very acute last week because of a combination of extended wait times,” Bedford said. “We had clear reports that we were seeing average wait times of 4, 5 or 6 days.”

“I heard from a principal of a school on Tuesday who told me — and this was a high school in the city — 40-percent of the classes has to be canceled by the lack of substitutes.”

Bedford said he agrees with the exemption, but teachers need to return to classrooms safely and have medical masks that aren’t expired, they have to work, and they cannot make teachers ill simply because they’re wearing them.

“It’s a recognition of the essential work that teachers are doing,” he said. “Without those teachers in classrooms, we have an acute shortage of substitute teachers in this province. There may not be a qualified teacher stepping into those classrooms, which mean that students will be supervised but they won’t necessarily be taught.”

Bedford added this addresses the physical safety of people working in schools, but it does not address the toll working during a pandemic takes on the mental health of educational staff. 

“There are so many things, this is just one small piece of a much broader concern.”