All Manitoba students will return to an actual classroom this fall amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, the province’s education minister says.
Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen and Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief medical health officer, announced details of the province’s highly-anticipated back-to-school plan Thursday.
Under the plan classroom learning will be full-time for students in Kindergarten through Grade 8 and for special-needs students in all grades, with five days of instruction per week.
The province says remote learning may be required for students in Grades 9-12, depending on whether or not their high schools are able to implement necessary public health measures including physical distancing.
Otherwise, high schools will be allowed to offer as few as two days of in-class instruction in each six-day school cycle.
There will be no limit on class sizes, instead Goertzen said schools will rely on the use of cohorts — groups of up to 75 students.
Alan Campbell, head of the Manitoba School Boards Association, says the vast majority of high schools will have to use the combination of in-class and remote learning.
“Five days a week is likely not feasible under the current circumstances for the vast majority of high schools,” Campbell said.
The province says divisions will have to ensure all students learning remotely have access to technology.
Students will not be required to wear masks, but schools will be asked to ensure students are two metres apart as much as possible. In some schools, resource rooms and other areas may have to be converted to classrooms to ensure students can maintain physical distancing.
There will also be increased screening of visitors and more cleaning of surfaces.
Lunch and recess breaks are to be staggered to minimize congestion, and in many cases teachers will change classrooms instead of students.
Buses will be running at reduced capacity, and parents will be asked to transport their children to school if they can.
There will also be no field trips, assemblies, or out of province travel for students, and the province added.
Goertzen has previously said schools will reopen on Sept. 8 — with teachers and staff returning Sept. 2 to get ready.
In the case there’s a resurgence of the virus, the province said three response levels have been developed to make sure divisions and schools are ready to roll back from in-class learning based on public health advice.
Roussin said there will be risks, but added that one case — and even a cluster at a school — wouldn’t be enough to revert to online learning.
“If we start seeing cases or transmission within a school, that’s not going to lead us to suspend classes at all schools and likely not even lead us to suspend classes in that school because we have things that are in place to to contact trace,” he said.
Roussin said health officials will closely at how the virus was transmitted before making any decisions.
Goertzen said the back-to-school guidelines have been developed in collaboration with school divisions and public health officials. He said all schools and divisions will follow the provincial guidelines and are expected to finalize and post division plans by mid-August.
“Divisions have been working diligently this summer on their individual plans for September, and are refining details for communication, screening, hand hygiene, physical distancing, the use of cohorts and outbreak management to be followed at every one of their schools,” he said in a release.
To pay for the new requirements, the government wants school boards to use $48 million they saved when schools were closed in March. The Manitoba Teachers’ Society said that may not be enough.
“We are certainly hoping that when it’s necessary, and where it’s necessary, that the province is willing to step in with financial assistance to ensure everybody’s safety in schools,” society president James Bedford said.
Bedford also said some school divisions will need help attracting more substitute teachers to fill in for educators who feel sick and have to stay home.
Late last month Goertzen announced students will head back to their studies in September and asked school divisions to come up with one of three plans for how they would like to come back to class.
At the time the province released a planning framework giving guidance for school divisions to work out “detailed reopening plans” under three scenarios.
The first scenario would have seen a near-normal return to school, subject to physical distancing requirements and limitations on gatherings, busing and other items, if COVID-19 numbers remain low.
If the pandemic becomes severe, the school system would have relied on online learning and classrooms will be shut except for small-group tutoring and assessments.
The middle-case scenario would have seen students kept in cohorts with a small number of classmates who would likely stay together throughout the day. Kids in elementary and middle school would continue to go to class five days a week, while high school students could be cut back to two days in class and three days online.
Goertzen said Thursday the path for back-to-school ultimately came about based in part on feedback provided by parents, caregivers and education stakeholders through an online survey last month.
The government is continuing to collect feedback from Manitobans through the province’s website.
‘Still playing it by ear’
Manitoba’s opposition parties were quick to raise issues with the Pallister government’s plans.
Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew said the plan puts too much burden on parents and teachers.
He also called on the government to reduce class sizes and hire more teachers, things his party had called for in the days leading up to Thursday’s announcement.
“A lot of parents in Manitoba are going to be worried about the lack of details in today’s back to school plan,” Kinew said in a tweet.
“The province is asking parents and teachers to do a lot: self-assess, transport, stay home, home school… but the PCs aren’t doing much to help.”
Manitoba Liberal Party leader Dougald Lamont said the government should have made new money available to help schools get ready to open and said there needs to be a plan to recruit and retain substitute teachers to fill in should teachers need to self-isolate.
He also said more needs to be done to accommodate staff and students who are immune compromised.
“It’s clear from the vagueness of the plan that the PCs are still playing it by ear,” Lamont said.
‘We’re in a cautionary tale right now’
Before Thursday’s announcement a Winnipeg-based researcher who studies infectious diseases and viruses said he hoped to see mask-wearing made mandatory for students and staff.
“We don’t know what that means in terms of transmission, but we’re in a cautionary tale right now — we want to make sure that we’re not seeing transmission among those students — especially back to their respective families and family members.”
“We’re seeing, I think, a stronger push for the use of masks.”
As jurisdictions across Canada move to make mask-wearing mandatory, Manitoba’s chief public health officer said this week he doesn’t anticipate mandating mask use in public spaces, but added that may change in the fall.
At Thursday’s briefing Roussin said health officials are watching what other provinces decide to do around masks in schools and said the decision to not mandate their use in the classrooms here could change should community-based transmission increase or as the province enters flu-season.
“We haven’t closed the door on anything and we’ll continue to review,” he said.
As of Thursday health officials said Manitoba has 76 known active cases of COVID-19. Since March the province has recorded 409 lab-confirmed and probable cases and eight people have died of the virus.
–With files from The Canadian Press
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