Parents and educators alike are happy to hear many students across Manitoba will be returning to class in the fall — though people involved in the education system recognize there is much to be done over the next several weeks to make back-to-school safe.
Schools were among the institutions shut down once the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Manitoba, and students had to complete the school year remotely.
But on Thursday, the provincial government laid out its plan for welcoming students back to school on Sep. 8.
“I’m thrilled that the kids are going back,” said Karla Banman, a Grade 2 teacher and mother of three.
“We found the last three months of school quite challenging. We did it, but we don’t want to do it again because I was homeschooling and teaching as well,” said Banman, adding that she and her husband felt like they were working 12 hours most days of the week.
The pandemic forced Banman to learn how to operate different technology and adjust her teaching on the fly, she said.
“But I miss the classroom, the kids miss the classroom and going to school and the structure.”
For students and staff returning to schools, there are nearly a dozen broad public health rules to follow with regards to hand hygiene, staying home when sick and limiting congestion throughout school hallways and common areas like cafeterias.
Kindergarten to Grade 8 students, and students with special needs in all grades, will be back to school full-time. But they must remain in cohorts of no more than 75 students, and cannot come into contact with other cohorts.
Meanwhile, high school students can only be back in class “if high schools can effectively implement physical distancing and the use of cohorts” to limit the potential spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the plan says.
This means many high school educators and students will have to continue with remote learning, or a mix of remote and in-class learning.
Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association, says the cohort rule exists mainly because of how those grade levels function.
“High school students, by definition, are not in a classroom group,” he said.
Kindergarten to Grade 8 students will have an easier time maintaining a cohort because their classes stay together all day. But high school students are often having different classes with different people, so it’s harder to keep them separated, Campbell explained.
Overall, Thursday’s announcement came as no surprise because school boards were involved in the process, said Campbell.
But the announcement of the plan provides more direction and clarity for schools as they prepare for back-to-school, he said.
It also allows time for potential adaptation, depending on advice from public health officials, he added.
“A month in COVID-19 time could bring many changes that might see those plans continuing to evolve right up until September 8,” he said.
“The biggest obstacle will be the continuing shifting of the ground beneath us.”
Brian O’Leary, superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division, is “really looking forward to September and getting kids back into school” and appreciates the guidance from the province.
Now it’s up to the schools to put in the work to make back-to-school as safe and efficient as possible, he said.
Bussing kids to school and students adjusting to new routines will be challenges students face come September, O’Leary said. But those are easier to manage than when schools had to adjust to remote learning.
Right now, the Seven Oaks is installing webcams in all high school classrooms, in order to have all students log in at the same time as if they were in the classroom, said O’Leary.
When schools closed in March, “high school kids turned their body clocks right around,” he said. “Their teachers are trying to finish the school day at 3:30 p.m., they’re getting work from kids at 3:30 a.m.”
Smaller high schools within the school division might be able to bring all their students back, but it will be tougher for larger high schools to do that, so they’ll have to get creative, O’Leary said.
Despite the obstacles of remote learning, O’Leary believes the school division can provide a “robust” education program for its high school students.
Meanwhile, the big question for James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, revolves around sick days for teachers.
When a teacher becomes sick, a substitute will need to fill in for them. But how long a teacher must stay away from work once they’re ill, and how many substitutes are available in Manitoba to replace them, are logistics that must be figured out, said Bedford, whose organization represents over 16,000 public school teachers.
He noted that provisions to help staff who are immunocompromised will be developed in the coming weeks.
There’s also the question of how much everything will cost this year.
“I know that the minister indicated that the school divisions have some savings that they can use, and it’s good to know that there is some money there,” said Bedford.
“But we’re not sure whether that will be enough money, simply because we don’t know all the details about what next year is going to look like.”
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