For many Manitoba students, Tuesday marks a fresh start in familiar hallways, but the experience is likely to be anything but familiar.
“I’m excited, but I’m anxious as well, because COVID is kind of scary and stressing me out,” said 14-year-old Brianna Sinclair.
The Grade 10 student picked up her school supplies on Friday before heading back into the high school she was forced to leave in April, when schools closed due to COVID-19.
She will attend classes on even days of the school cycle and work at home virtually the remainder of the time. But she wishes she could be back full-time.
“I don’t like online because it’s harder for me to understand and get to know what I’m doing,” she said. “But I guess we will see.”
Among her new back-to-school items: mini bottles of hand sanitizer and a stack of cloth masks, including one with a gingham print and hearts, in keeping with a provincial policy mandating mask use for students in Grade 4 and up, wherever they can’t physically distance.
“I’m getting used to it,” she said. “Still, it’s kind of hard to breathe, but it’s whatever. You’ve got to stay safe.”
Some of the other changes she has been told about include entering and exiting the school at a designated door and only spending time in one part of the school.
Provincial public health orders suggest cohorting students, or keeping them in groups of up to 75 people, to limit contact between students and streamline contact tracing in the event a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19.
6 months since students last at school
It’s been six months of shifting gears since the COVID-19 pandemic upended school and life as students knew it in April.
Classes moved online and teachers and students connected virtually, completing coursework through downloadable assignments and take-home packages.
Graduation ceremonies forged ahead: some online, some via drive-thru and others at smaller, physically-distanced events, all while dinners and dances were largely postponed or cancelled.
As COVID-19 cases in the province temporarily dipped down to near-zero, with no new cases for 13 straight days in July, a normal return to school seemed increasingly probable.
Throughout the summer, provincial leaders consulted with education leaders, surveyed parents and looked to other provinces as back-to-school plans began to trickle out.
Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen told school divisions to plan for three different scenarios, depending on the COVID-19 case burden this fall: a full return, a partial return or another round of entirely remote learning.
At the end of July, Goertzen announced a full-return for students in kindergarten to Grade 8 and a combination of in-class and remote learning for high school students, with public health protocols in place in schools.
WATCH | Gearing up for back to school:
No remote learning option for all
The return to school is mandatory with remote learning options for students who are immunocompromised.
Parents who do not wish to send their children must notify the province and home-school them instead.
Since early July, COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed in the province, following clusters and outbreaks most notably in the Brandon area and in communal-living settings such as Hutterite colonies.
The surge was enough for at least three First Nations in Manitoba to decide to keep schools closed as a precaution.
Anxiety heightened again in late August as the province tightened restrictions in Brandon, limiting gatherings to 10 people and making masks mandatory.
Meanwhile, thousands of parents, concerned about sending their children back to classrooms, signed a petition to make remote learning an option for all families.
The grassroots group SafeSeptemberMB held demonstrations on the steps the Manitoba Legislature, calling for reduced class sizes and remote learning options.
Still, the province remains steady with it’s back-to-school plan.
Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, continues to remind Manitobans about the importance of learning to live with the virus for the foreseeable future.
Cheryl Turner will be sending her daughter and son back to kindergarten and Grade 7 and she’s feeling good about it.
“They’re actually both excited, really,” she said. “I’m not so much afraid of them getting sick, because I think it’s not affecting younger kids as much as it is older adults and people that have pre-existing conditions.”
She said she learned her son did not do well with remote and independent learning, and she thinks her kids will be better off in the classroom for learning and socialization.
Parent Mike Severino is trying to be optimistic too. He is sending his 12-year-old daughter, who has special needs, to begin Grade 7.
“All I can really do is just have faith that they have our best interests at heart,” Severino said. “If time says that we have to adjust, I think we should and just take the advice our leaders.”
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