Demonstration at legislature points to pandemic risk of close quarters in Manitoba classrooms

By | August 20, 2020

Rhonda Hinther feels caught in a dilemma as the start of the new school year draws near. 

Should she send her eight-year-old son into a Manitoba classroom she fears is too small to prevent the spread of COVID-19, or keep him home, even though she doesn’t feel she has the resources to teach him on her own?

“I have a great deal of fear that I’m going to do my son a disservice in trying to help fight COVID, and that he’s going to end up disadvantaged somewhere down the line,” she said.

Hinther joined a group of teachers and fellow parents in a demonstration outside the Manitoba Legislative Building Thursday, calling on decision makers to do more to make physical distancing possible in schools by reducing the number of students in each class.

The demonstration was part of the #SafeSeptemberMB campaign, pushing for more resources for teachers and parents to ensure that the return to in-class learning this fall doesn’t lead to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

The group arranged chairs on the lawn, spaced two metres apart — the distance public health officials recommend people maintain to avoid spreading the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Using the dimensions of the average Manitoba classroom, they managed to fit 16 chairs into the space — far less than the average class size of 25 to 30 students, Hinther said.

The group arranged chairs, set two metres apart, to show how many students could fit into a classroom using the physical distancing standards recommended by public health officials. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

“As a parent, I don’t feel safe sending my child back into his Grade 4 classroom in the typical classroom numbers that we would see in a Winnipeg school, or a Manitoba school,” she said.

One-metre minimum: province

The provincial government announced last month that classes would resume for all students in September, with kids in kindergarten to Grade 8 in classrooms full-time, while high school students will be in class as much as possible, but may have a mix of in-class and remote learning.

Elementary and middle school students will be split into cohorts of up to 75, with no crossover between groups. 

The province has set one metre as the minimum distance that students must keep apart while in classrooms, but the Manitoba Teachers’ Society has said even that standard could be difficult to meet. 

Lauren Hope teaches math and science at a Winnipeg high school. One of the classrooms she teaches in has been referred to as “the airplane,” due to its cramped nature. It also has no windows, she said. 

“So when we hear these suggestions, that perhaps we should just open a window … I would ask that the government spend some time in these actual classrooms,” Hope said.

Lauren Hope, a math and science teacher at a Winnipeg high school, says she has mixed emotions about returning to class in September. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

A spokesperson for the provincial government said its back-to-school plans are based on the advice of Manitoba Public Health, and the province will continue to work with school divisions to safely bring students back to class in September.

“All students aged seven to 18 are to participate fully in learning when students return to schools in September, even when remote learning is required,” the province said in a statement.

“Division-level remote learning will be in place for students who have been medically advised not to return to in-class learning due to COVID-related risk factors. If students are not medically advised to stay home, options for families include public school, independent school or home-schooling.”

Other demands

The demonstration on Thursday served as a preview for a rally planned for Aug. 27.  

The #SafeSeptemberMB group has launched an online petition with a list of demands they say are needed to ensure students and staff don’t catch and spread the virus. The change.org petition had close to 13,000 by Thursday evening.

The provincial government’s back-to-school plan calls for students to sit a minimum of one metre apart. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Along with smaller class sizes, the group wants to see funding to hire enough teachers to support both in-class and remote learning, upgrades to school ventilation systems, and full sick leave for school employees who have to self-isolate due to COVID-19.

Without these measures, Hinther doesn’t know if she can send her son back to school. She’s been looking up education materials online, but says she isn’t a replacement for a trained elementary school teacher.

“These are the dying days of summer. We should be spending time with our families. We shouldn’t have to be preparing to teach our children,” she said.

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