How could Manitoba schools reopen? Denmark could have ideas

By | May 20, 2020

From hand washing stations to temperature checks and plexiglass partitions: back to school around the world is looking a lot different for students in response to COVID 19 — and offering a glimpse of what students could expect in Manitoba when classrooms reopen.

At an international school in Denmark, students queue up to wash their hands in portable outdoor basins before entering the building.  

Inside, red and white tape on the floors guide the flow of traffic.  

Classrooms now operate at half capacity and desks are spaced two meters apart to ensure physical distancing. Windows and doors are also left open to promote ventilation

Some classes are moved outdoors altogether.

Recess and lunch breaks are staggered and kids play outside in designated zones to reduce crowding — all part of a new routine for students. 

“I think if you ask them, they’re really happy to be back at school,” Dominic Maher, headmaster at St. Josef’s International School in Rostkilde, a city west of Copenhagen, told CBC News.

Despite many chapped hands from all of the extra hand washing, Maher said students appear to be adjusting well.

“There was a little bit of anxiety in the community … but we saw very quickly our attendance rates go back up to normal within a few days once people could see that people were practicing good hygiene.”

Shorter days, staggered learning

Denmark opened its doors back to elementary students in mid-April. Middle years students returned just last week, Maher said. 

They have shortened the school day to accommodate the influx of students.

Younger years attend in the morning, while middle years participate online and attend in-person instruction in the afternoons.

A classroom in Denmark has desks spaced 2m apart to ensure physical distancing. (Submitted by Dominic Maher)

An hour in between allows staff to sanitize the building, Maher said.  

So far, there have been no recorded cases of COVID-19 among his 1,000 students, he said, noting it appears reopening schools has not contributed to a rise in virus transmission.

“The numbers have been pretty steady right through the reopening phases,” he said.

While health-screening and masks are not mandatory in Denmark, other jurisdictions such as Shanghai are screening students with thermal scanners to check for signs of fever.

Meanwhile, some students in the Netherlands returned to classroom desks separated by clear partitions. 

Masks, visors in Quebec

Here in Canada, some Quebec students were welcomed back to school earlier this month by teachers and bus drivers donning masks and plastic visors. Children also got a squirt of hand sanitizer before taking a seat in spaced out desks.

A student has her hands sanitized in the schoolyard, as schools outside the greater Montreal region begin to reopen their doors amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Canada May 11, 2020. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

As in Denmark, recess and lunch breaks are staggered and hand washing is required when students come and go from the classroom.

New reality 

In Manitoba, in-school classes were suspended by the province indefinitely in late March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Instead, online-based learning has continued from home, with some school divisions loaning out latop computers and other electronics to ensure students can access the material. 

There is no indication if schools will reopen come September, but divisions are actively preparing for a new reality. 

Manitoba education minister Kelvin Goertzen told CBC News last week that the province is looking at what other provinces are doing as they re-open schools. He said the goal is to have students back in class in September.

Seven Oaks School Division is installing video cameras and microphones to each high school teacher’s computer to accommodate in-class and online learning when students return. 

“So they can record their lessons and be teaching some [students] in person and others remotely at the same time,” said superintendent Brian O’Leary, adding it may be one way to reduce class sizes.

Other changes will include moving gym class outdoors and shifting lunch breaks and recess to avoid students clogging hallways.

He is hopeful schools will reopen — in some capacity — in September, but for now Seven Oaks is rolling out summer camp-style programming to get some kids back in classrooms to address the limits of remote learning and keep kids from falling behind.

“In schools what we do is teach,” O’Leary said. “I think whether it’s social distancing, or stay home when your symptomatic, or wash your hands properly, I think our first approach is always to figure a teaching solution.”

Craig Janes, director of the school of public health and health systems at the University of Waterloo, said no matter what model schools adopt, the basic principles of physical distancing and hand-hygiene will be critical.

“I think the lesson for Canadian jurisdictions is to look at the successes, or lack thereof, in some of these other international jurisdictions who have kind of taken the lead,” he said. 

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