A Winnipeg teacher says the provincial government has failed in its COVID-19 back-to-school plan, and her response has prompted a grassroots social media campaign demanding more protection for students and teachers in September.
“Had I given this assignment to my students and given them five months to come up with a plan and asked them to use some good investigative skills to find evidence of what a good plan looks like, I would fail all of them on what they came back with,” said Lauren Hope, who teachers math and science at both private and public schools in Winnipeg.
The province released specific guidelines for returning to school last Thursday and provided more clarification Friday. Manitoba students in Grade 5 and up will be required to wear non-medical masks on school buses.
The province is also strongly recommending — but not mandating — the use of masks for students from grades 5 to 12 in common areas and spaces in schools where physical distancing isn’t possible.
WATCH | Teacher Lauren Hope explains why she and others have started the #SafeSeptemberMB campaign
Schools are being asked to ensure facilities have good ventilation and open windows if possible.
They will also need to schedule classes to avoid giving students spares and make sure students stay in smaller cohorts when two-metre distancing isn’t possible.
Home-schooling not an option for many
For many families, home-schooling and distance learning are not options, and they create equity issues, widening the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged families, Hope said.
“Schools provide a lot more than learning. They provide meal programs and safety and supports for lots of our students and for their families as well, so having them out of the classroom is really further marginalizing students who are very vulnerable to many things,” she said.
After sharing her concerns on social media, hundreds of other teachers and parents have reached out to share their frustration.
They’ve now banded together to form an advocacy group and social media campaign called #SafeSeptemberMB.
They’re inspired by a similar group in Nova Scotia, which is concerned about a 100 per cent return to learning as usual. Nova Scotia’s back-to-school plan doesn’t require masks but they are encouraged when physical distancing isn’t possible.
Tough choices for parents
Wadood Myireh got involved in #SafeSeptemberMB because he’s worried for the health of his three children. Two are heading to high school and one is starting university in Brandon, Man.
“My concern is there is not proper protocol in the schools and I will not send my children until I am sure that they are safe at the school,” he said.
On Friday, the Brandon School Division released its plans for getting students back to class this fall.
All students and staff will have access to masks, but they won’t be mandated. Children up to Grade 8 will return to class full-time, while high school students will do half of their learning online. Administrative staff will have permanent plexiglass installed on their stations.
Still, Myireh and his wife would prefer all three children do their classes online.
“On computers and maybe even through the TV and doing some sort of programs on YouTube. And the kids can able to watch and the parents can do [it] in the evenings with them,” he said.
Outrage, disappointment and concern
Hope said she is speaking out because so many of her teaching colleagues are unable to, out of fear for their jobs.
“It’s impossible for me to separate my reaction as a teacher and a parent because I wear those hats simultaneously as as many many teachers do, so I would qualify my reaction as outrage first, disappointment and fear and with valid reason and just a deep concern for all the people whose voices won’t be heard with these decisions,” said Hope.
She is also concerned about her health and the health of her two children — and she does not want any of them to put her 85-year-old mother at risk of COVID-19.
The Manitoba group has an online petition with eight demands:
- Publicly-funded, school-supported instruction and assessment for all students, whether they are learning in the classroom or remotely from home.
- School employees who want to work remotely should get what they need to support distance teaching.
- Class sizes small enough to support physical distancing of two metres.
- Make mask use mandatory for all teachers, staff and students, providing exemptions where appropriate.
- Assess ventilation and/or filtration systems in all school settings and follow all recommendations for upgrades required.
- Reinstate the mandatory two-week self-isolation order for all non-essential out-of-province travellers.
- Provide full paid sick leave to all divisional employees who self isolate while ill, who are awaiting COVID-19 test results or who are recovering from COVID-19, including substitute employees.
- Hire additional supply teachers and educational assistants to cover any staff on leave.
The group is hoping to organize a physically distanced rally at the Manitoba Legislature.
They’re also encouraging members to join the telephone town hall on Aug. 18, and share their views with Manitoba’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, and Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen.
“I want to be in school. I want to be teaching. I want my children in school and I want to see my students,” Hope said.
“So the only barrier to that is providing a plan that is safe and that requires resources that the government has not committed to in a direct way. This under-resourced and under-planned document is not doing that.”
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