All kindergarten to Grade 12 students are expected back in class come fall, but what’s that going to look like with COVID-19 still circulating in Manitoba?
Health and education officials gave the public a sense of that on Thursday, when they announced plans for the Sept. 8 return to in-person classes.
The plan is framed around three different scenarios or risk levels, but COVID-19 is ultimately in the driver’s seat, and its prevalence in the community will influence policy.
The other main driver is the ability of individual schools to implement spacing requirements.
That’s why when class is back in session, no two schools will look the same — and why some high schoolers are more likely to be doing a combination of virtual and in-class learning.
What will classrooms look like?
K-8 students will be in class full time. High school students, maybe not.
Generally, classes will be configured to allow for two metres between students. There will be assigned seating where possible.
Many K-8 students, especially younger kids, will remain with their homeroom classmates throughout the day.
Teachers, rather than students, may move from class to class for different subjects to minimize foot traffic.
When it’s not possible to keep two metres apart, students will be grouped into cohorts, with at least one metre of space between them.
The maximum cohort size is 75, which could include students from more than one classroom, depending on space constraints. Students won’t be allowed to mix outside of their cohorts.
But the cohorting model won’t always work at the high school level. Many courses are electives, and that makes for far more movement between classrooms — some Grade 11 students might be taking Grade 12-level courses, for example.
There may be more blended options, including some in-class and virtual learning for them. It will largely depend on how much distance high schools can reliably maintain between students.
Right now, the province is hoping all high schoolers will be able to be in classrooms full time, but given spacing considerations, high school students will only be required to be in class for two days in every six-day cycle.
Lunches and recess breaks from K-12 will be staggered to avoid congestion in common areas.
Assemblies generally won’t happen unless physical distancing is possible.
What about getting to and from school?
Buses will run, but parents are still encouraged to drop off their kids at school.
Divisions are confident that those who need to bus will have access to the service.
Schools will manage entry and exits to minimize congestion at drop-off times.
Students will be expected not to clump together on the bus, though there are provisions being considered that could allow some to sit close together if they go to the same school.
When are kids not allowed to go to school?
Students with symptoms must stay home when sick, and sick notes won’t be required.
The province is expecting higher absenteeism rates this year for that reason.
The same goes for teachers. Substitutes will fill in as needed.
If Manitoba’s COVID-19 outlook worsens, it’s possible that due to the mobile nature of substitute teachers, limitations could be imposed on the number of schools where they’re allowed to teach.
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My child has a medical condition. What’s the plan for them?
Remote learning options will be available for students with compromised immune systems. Accommodations will be made for those with other health conditions.
The province’s families and education departments are working on guidelines with divisions on details for specific school communities.
What about gym class and school sports?
Gym class will occur outside where possible, or inside with distancing enforced.
The province has crafted some guidelines for school sports already, and league officials are meeting soon to discuss how they’ll work.
Cross-country might be up and running, but Manitoba’s education minister admitted it may be more of a challenge for big team sports like basketball and football.
“For some [sports], it might not be practical,” said Kelvin Goertzen.
How will schools keep kids safe?
Provincial health officials have worked with school divisions on a variety of measures.
Enhanced sanitizing, hand hygiene and distancing will be in place across divisions and grades. Schools and buses will have more cleaning products on hand.
Students can’t share lunch, pencils or supplies. Lockers may be restricted as well.
Masks aren’t being mandated — yet. That could change if Manitoba’s COVID-19 outlook worsens into the fall, said Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin. Students and staff are allowed to wear non-medical masks if they choose.
Heading back to class could also produce anxiety, or cause mental health challenges to surface for students. The department of education has asked divisions to develop supports specific to each school community.
Schools are permitted to do some form of screening of students for symptoms, but that isn’t a requirement. The emphasis is on parents paying close attention to how their kids are feeling.
Roussin recommends parents with a sick kid assume they could have COVID-19 and get them tested.
If a student tests positive for COVID-19, the regular contact tracing investigation will occur. The student won’t be allowed back to class for at least 10 days after the onset of symptoms.
A case or cluster at one school also isn’t likely to trigger changes across the board. Health officials say the nature of specific exposures will be taken into account and targeted risk assessments will follow.
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What happens if things get worse?
If Manitoba’s COVID-19 fortunes take a serious turn, expect overall public health and school guidelines to change accordingly.
The province could decide to re-introduce at-home learning or move to a blended model across the board.
Some communities or schools could choose to retreat to online-only instruction based on a local outbreak or their own unique concerns, as was the case when COVID-19 arrived in Manitoba.
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