Manitoba education minister tries to balance optimism with reality in back-to-school address

Manitoba Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen speaks during a COVID-19 live-streamed press conference at the legislature in Winnipeg, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The provincial government says most Manitoba students will be back in class on Sept. 8. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods. HE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Manitoba’s education minister offered a reassuring message Tuesday morning as students across the province returned to school, many for the first time, since the COVID-19 pandemic ground most of everyday life to a halt.

Kelvin Goertzen said many people, including school division and public health officials, educators, parents and others, had been critical to getting schools ready to welcome back students all while managing public health guidelines.

“We need to give a lot of credit to those teachers and to all those working in the school system for doing this under really difficult circumstances,” Goertzen said.

Read more: Winnipeg schools ready for start of strangest school year in recent memory

The primary challenges had been with high schools and school transportation, Goertzen said, where accommodating for physical distancing was particularly difficult in some cases.

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And while the minister tried to strike an optimistic tone, he also offered stark realism, saying bluntly that COVID-19 will eventually be found in Manitoba schools.

“I believe that public health and the school officials are going to do a very good job when they find cases within the schools, reacting to those cases, isolating those cases, making sure they don’t spread more broadly,” Goertzen said, adding transparency would be key when that happens.

“If we can provide that information it will provide confidence more than it will provide fear.”

Read more: Manitoba school staff preparing to welcome students back to class amid coronavirus

The minister took care to point out Manitoba’s back-to-school plan was and is being led by public health officials, rather than politicians, as is the case “in some areas of the world.”

“That is I think where concern should come in. That is not the case with this back-to-school plan,” Goertzen said.

“In the same way that when we have a flood in Manitoba we rely on the advice of our chief flood forecaster … this is a health crisis in which we are having the public health officer lead the response and they led the response when it comes to this reopening plan as well and that’s where the confidence comes from.”

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Read more: Bus strike begins on first day of school in Winnipeg School Division

In terms of transportation, Goertzen said it appears “95 per cent” of students who were eligible for transportation had received it, discounting the 2,300 students in the Winnipeg School Division (WSD) where bus drivers with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) 832 officially went on strike at 7:00 a.m.

The minister didn’t comment on the specifics of the dispute, saying negotiations don’t happen in public, but said they were hoping for a quick resolution.

At issue, according to the union, is the province’s mandated two-year wage freeze, which was never proclaimed into law, and is currently tied up in court.

A Manitoba judge ruled in June that the wage freeze violated various unions’ right to collective bargaining, however the government has since filed noticed that it would challenge that ruling.

Read more: Manitoba government plans to appeal ruling that quashed wage freeze

According to UFCW 832, the school division has indicated it wants to maintain the province’s mandate of no pay increases for two years, followed by a 0.75 per cent increase in the third year and one per cent in the fourth.

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“I can tell you our members would much rather be driving the bus and driving students back and forth to and from school rather than walking the picket line,” said Bea Bruske with UFCW 832.

“It takes two parties to come to the table, but it also takes two parties who are willing to compromise and find a solution, and so far we have not seen that from the division.”

Read more: Manitoba’s public sector wage freeze bill violates Charter, court rules

In the meantime, a spokesperson for WSD said the first day back had gone off better than expected, given the circumstances.

“It’s been actually kind of a quiet day,” said Radean Carter.

“We had most of our students actually at school today; we had a much lower absenteeism than expected.”

Carter says that’s likely because parents have known for weeks there may be issues with transportation, but until now everyone assumed that would be because of physical distancing requirements.

“We’ve been planning for the physical distance on school buses for weeks and weeks now, so parents have been aware that they probably wouldn’t have a spot on a bus.”

Carter added contingency plans won’t actually begin until next Monday, when schools are to begin offering before and after school care for students who are being dropped off and picked up, and virtual learning for those who can’t get a ride.

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Meanwhile, UFCW 832 says it was scheduling and assigning picket line shifts throughout the day, and its 90 drivers will be walking the picket line beginning Wednesday.

Click to play video: 'Manitoba Teachers’ Society on day one of back to school'
Manitoba Teachers’ Society on day one of back to school

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