Manitoba’s education minister is calling for more transparency from public health officials so parents know when there are COVID-19 cases in schools.
“We should be providing as much information as we can when it comes to particular schools where there’s been instances [of COVID-19], because we know what will happen otherwise, right?” Kelvin Goertzen said on Wednesday. “I think it will provide more confidence.”
Goertzen gave an update about the province’s back-to-school plans at a news conference, where he outlined some of the details about how positive cases in a school or child-care space will be handled.
That process will be led by public health officials, who will determine whether the person was at the school or daycare while infectious, do contact tracing to identify close contacts, and ask questions that will help determine the risk of transmission, Goertzen said.
Those close contacts — possibly an entire cohort — will be told to self-isolate. Public health staff will tell people whether they need to get tested and let them know when they can return to school, he said.
Public health officials may then tell the people who run the school or daycare about the case. And if officials decide there’s a need to, they can also announce the case to people beyond those directly affected, Goertzen said.
In Manitoba, these officials have typically erred on the side of revealing little information about sites linked to COVID-19 cases, unless they determine there’s a risk to public health. But when it comes to COVID-19 cases popping up in the province’s schools after next week’s return to classes, Goertzen is urging them to notify schools and the public.
It’s important for public health to provide enough information to let people know they’ve been affected by a positive case — or assure them they haven’t, he said.
“Here’s the reality: As a parent, I’m going to hear what’s happening in the school. We’re all connected to other parents. And so we’re going to hear about things,” he said.
“I think that it’s incumbent upon us to provide enough information that not only meets the medical need, but also meets the emotional needs of parents who are in a school.”
Goertzen said public health officials intend to update people daily on COVID-19 infections in schools, but noted some students or teachers might be infected outside of school.
The province said it will announce in its news releases whether any outbreaks have been declared at schools or daycares, but did not specify what constitutes an outbreak.
The province released new guides Wednesday that contain a wide array of information for parents and guardians on things like how to properly use face masks (which are now mandatory on school buses for students in all grades) and how to screen kids for symptoms before sending them to school.
The guides also include information for parents about how things will change if a school is upgraded in the province’s colour-coded pandemic response system, which has four levels: limited risk (green), caution (yellow), restricted (orange) and critical (red).
Right now, most of the province is classified under the caution, or yellow, level. Some exceptions include the Prairie Mountain Health region (which is under the restricted, or orange, level) and several personal care homes with cases of COVID-19 (which are under the critical, or red, level).
Manitoba schools are opening under the caution level — even those in the restricted-level Prairie Mountain Health region. Goertzen said that’s because public health officials have decided the increased restrictions in schools, compared to the rest of the region, make it safe for classes to return at the caution level.
That level means masks are required for students in grades 4 to 12 and there is blended at-home and in-class learning for high school students.
If a school is upgraded to the restricted level, there will be stricter rules, including scaled back in-class learning for high school students, reduced capacity on school buses and possible changes to mask recommendations.
Under the critical level, buses will stop running, almost all students will learn remotely and schools will be closed to the public, except for children from kindergarten to Grade 6 whose parents are critical workers.
No remote learning for most
For the most part, Manitoba is still only allowing remote learning for students with compromised immune systems, Goertzen said.
He said there are practical considerations linked to remote learning that need to be taken into account, since teaching kids in a classroom and teaching remotely involve different tasks — and doing both at once is challenging for teachers.
“It is believed by teachers and others that the best learning environment for the majority of students is in the classroom,” he said.
When schools moved to remote learning in March, there were negative impacts for some students, Goertzen said.
And when schools opened on a limited basis in June, teachers raised the issue of whether juggling remote and in-class learning was fair, he said.
“That has always been a concern from teachers, all through this process,” Goertzen said. “How do you expect teachers to do both?”
One exception to that decision is the Pembina Trails School Division, where students who live with someone who has a compromised immune system will now have the option to access remote learning, the division said on Monday.
Goertzen said he expects more registrations for home-schooling this year than last year, but the province “is not seeing a tsunami” of parents keeping their kids at home, he said.
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