Hundreds of people showed up at the Garden Valley School Division offices in Winkler Tuesday night to make their voices heard on the issue of mandatory masks.

"We may not all believe the same things, but we are all fighting for children and the best education for the kids in Winkler," says Mandy Thiessen. She's a representative from a growing group of parents in southern Manitoba who want more choice for their children in school when it comes to masks and other COVID-19 restrictions.

Protesters crowd together holding signs

They're lobbying the government to ease mandatory mask rules and the requirement of a doctor's note for a mask exemption. They're also asking that the government consider region-specific COVID-19 restrictions based on the province's RestartMB Pandemic Response System which rates regions on the risk of transmission from limited risk (green) to caution (yellow), restricted (orange) and critical (red).

The group gathered at the Garden Valley School Division office Tuesday evening as Thiessen and fellow parent Heather DiFrancesco gave a presentation during a school trustees board meeting, specifically questioning the division's requirement of a medical doctor's note to receive an exemption from wearing a mask.

Board Chair Laurie Dyck says the division is simply expected to adhere to the provincial measures in place.

"None of us in Garden Valley School Division are medical doctors, and we felt it was best to allow people in that profession to determine, in exceptional circumstances, who would qualify for a mask exemption," Dyck says.

"We will stand behind that," she adds. "And there are numerous places where we're working hard to have mask-free time for our students at school... we're working to create the best learning experiences we can with the mandates that are above us."

Thiessen says while they requested the audience with school division, and encouraged supporters to gather outside, they didn't consider the event a "protest."

"We really want to unify Winkler, we don't want to divide," she says.

It's why organizers purposefully avoided social media and instead grew organically by word-of-mouth, Thiessen says. They started with a meeting of over 100 parents, which also sparked a petition calling for more freedom when it comes to children wearing masks in school. The petition has been signed by more than 1,200 parents, representing nearly 2,000 children in the Garden Valley School Division.

mask demonstration amy warms
(Amy Warms)

"We keep being told we're the minority," DiFrancesco says. "That's not the case."

Despite the controversial battle, Thiessen says they hope to voice their concerns with kindness and grace.

"We have zero issues with teachers, administrators and EA's," Thiessen explains. "We want our kids at school, we could keep them home but we love the school environment."

Originally, the Province had recommended students in Grades 4 to 12 wear masks in school, but they were not mandated. Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen and Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin held a virtual town hall meeting in August to receive feedback on their roadmap for reopening schools.

However, DiFrancesco says the town hall was very one-sided. "They fielded questions, but not from parents who had concerns about children wearing masks," she says. "That's where they got the mandate from but they didn't allow anybody from our perspective to speak."

Instead of masks being strongly recommended, they became a provincial requirement for all students in Grades 4 and up in indoor spaces where they can't physically distance.

In the end, DiFrancesco says it comes down to choice. "Let's show the province we want the choice to wear masks in school, the choice for our children to play sports, the choice to attend school every day for high school students."

"So we're sending a message to the Education Minister, the Health Minister, our MLA's and our government... we are calling for choice in our division," DiFrancesco says.

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