WINNIPEG -- The Manitoba government's directive on mandatory masks among students is being criticized by a group of parents in Winkler, Man.

On Tuesday, Oct. 13, hundreds gathered outside of the Garden Valley School Division (GVSD) office for a protest against the current mask requirements in schools.

The rally occurred at the same time a parent group was giving a presentation asking for the school division to reconsider its rules on masks.

During the meeting, Mandy Thiessen and Heather DiFrancesco told the board they had received a petition against mandatory masks in the school division, signed by over 1,200 people.

"There are many parents who believe that wearing a mask may cause psychological and physical harm to their children," DiFrancesco said during the meeting on Tuesday, a video of which was posted on the school division's website.

"Your staff, EAs, and teachers in the school know our children better than any doctor could, and their parents know even better," Thiessen said during the meeting. "So, the best and second-best advocates were taken out of the picture at a time when health is at the forefront of the agenda.

"So, we find ourselves in a position where there are children in Winkler who are not thriving, and that should be of concern to everyone."

Masks are currently mandatory for all students on buses in Manitoba, and all students in Grades 4-12 must wear a mask while in school.

Manitoba guidelines for exemptions to wearing masks in schools were updated on Sept. 18, to say school divisions may request a doctor's note from a parent for exemptions to facemasks.

"A medical note from a health care provider for a reasonable accommodation to be made by a school is not required by Public Health or Manitoba Education," the guidelines read. "However, to accommodate limitations to wearing a mask at school or on a school bus, information regarding the child’s limitations to wearing a mask must be provided to the school."

Medical exemptions for masks in Manitoba include people with a medical condition unrelated to COVID-19, including breathing or cognitive difficulties or a disability, which prevents them from safely wearing a mask, and people who cannot remove a mask without assistance from another person.

In a statement, Laurie Dyck, chair of the school division's board of trustees, said the school division will continue speaking with Manitoba Education and Public Health, but no changes to mask rules are being made.

"To be fair and objective in the process of mask exemption requests, GVSD is requiring a doctor’s medical note with the exemption form as a doctor is the best professional to make medical decisions," Dyck wrote in a statement.

Lisa Hildebrand, a resident of the nearby community of Morden, said she was not happy to see images of the rally circulate on Facebook.

"I don't think this was a healthy or smart thing to be doing at this point in time in our community," she said. "Our numbers aren't that high out here, but it is still a risk that is being taken by a large group of people."

Hildebrand notes she has asthma, and masks should be used to help protect people in the community

Winkler Mayor Martin Harder said apart from schools and other organizations, no other mandatory mask rules are in the city.

He said the rules about where masks should and should not be worn are not clearly defined, but people in the community should consider how their actions could impact others.

"The school division has made a determination that, in their opinion, is one of the recommendations the province has come up with, and for them to not make those medical decisions, they felt this was the way to potentially mitigate some of the risk," he said.

Harder said as a leader, he believes Winkler is at the same risk of COVID-19 as any other community, but his bigger concern is the approach community members take towards each other.

"We want people to treat everybody with respect and to observe the distance when others don't feel comfortable with not wearing masks

As of October 14, Winkler has one active COVID-19 case, and 15 people have recovered from the virus since the pandemic started.