What happens when COVID-19 hits Manitoba schools? Education minister answers back-to-class questions

By | September 2, 2020

Parents and educators are getting more details about next week’s return to classes, including what will happen when someone at a Manitoba school gets COVID-19.

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen gave more details about what protocols are in place for when this happens in a school or child-care setting at a news conference on Wednesday.

First, public health officials will determine whether the person was at school or daycare while infectious, do contact tracing to identify close contacts and ask questions that will help determine the risk, Goertzen said.

“Where did the case come from? Who are those close contacts? Is there a vulnerability within a school or cohort?” are among the questions they’ll consider, he 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 students can return to school.

Public health officials will then tell the person who runs the school or daycare about the case.

Everyone else at that site will only be told about the case by public health staff if they decide it’s necessary.

Otherwise, it will be up to schools to decide whether to make that announcement.

Goertzen said he hopes to see more transparency in these situations, not less. Public health officials intend to update people daily on COVID-19 infections in schools, but some students or teachers may not be infected at school, he said.

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 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 their kids’ schools are upgraded to a different level under 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.

The caution 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 any of the province’s schools are upgraded to the restricted level, there will be stricter rules, including scaling back in-class learning for high school students, reduced capacity on school buses and possible changes to mask recommendations across the board.

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 of critical workers from kindergarten to Grade 6.

Parents in Manitoba have already been getting more information this week about what the Sept. 8 return to classes will look like at their kids’ schools.

In the Pembina Trails School Division, students who live with someone who has a compromised immune system will now have the option to access remote learning this school year, the division said on Monday.

That’s a departure from the province’s back-to-school plan, which only allows that option for students who are immunocompromised themselves.

Goertzen said there are practical considerations linked to remote learning that need to be taken into account, since teaching kids in a classroom and 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, he said.

When schools opened on a limited basis in June, the greatest concern the province heard was whether making teachers juggle 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?”

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.

Parents of nearly 300 students in the Louis Riel School Division learned last week that their kids will go to different schools this fall to create space for physical distancing.

Face masks are also now mandatory on school buses for students in all grades, the province said on Tuesday. Previously, the plan was to only require students in Grade 4 and up to wear face coverings while on board.

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