Despite the Prairie Mountain Health region being designated at an “orange,” or “restricted,” risk level under Manitoba’s pandemic response system, schools in the province’s second-largest city are preparing to welcome students back to the classroom starting next week.
That has meant a lot of work for teachers and school administrators in Brandon, making sure there are adequate supplies of everything from hand sanitizer to masks and desks are moved further apart, and even changing the layout of some spaces altogether.
“We’ve tried to think of every way … on how to keep kids apart,” said Blaine Aston, principal of Betty Gibson School in Brandon’s core area, on a tour of his school this week.
His school will see 315 K-8 students return this week.
The school’s hallways have been divided into lanes, each dedicated to one-way traffic, Aston said. Desks have also been moved so they are further apart and some furniture has been removed from the school’s library.
The library will also now serve as a space where teachers can work with students one-on-one. Tables will be sanitized after each use, he said.
Students at the school will also be cohorted. Each cohort is assigned their own door to enter and leave the school, along with their own space in the schoolyard and equipment on the playground, said Aston. Breaks will be staggered for different grades and cohorts.
Despite all the added measures, which also include hand sanitizer and boxes of masks in each classroom and throughout the building, Aston admits there is still some anxiety about the start of the year.
“It’s a different type of uneasiness to start the year,” he said. “I would say every year there are anxieties, but this is a lot different than other years.”
Colours, number system for students
In Brenda McDiarmid’s Grade 1 class, students will be learning a lot about colours and numbers this year.
She’s using a colour and number system to keep her students organized and let them know when it’s their turn to go to the coat rack or wash their hands, for example, in order to keep everyone properly distanced.
“Their numbers are on their table, on their locker, on their chair,” she said during a brief stop in her classroom.
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Stacy Hynes has a child going into Grade 2 at another school in Brandon. Hynes has already visited the school her daughter attends, but she still has some concerns.
“It sounds good on paper,” Hynes told CBC News. “But when you’re dealing with logistics and when you’re actually making the plan work, are they really ready to start next week?”
Hynes, who said she has no other option but to send her daughter to school, said she worries most about how kids will be kept safely separated — especially during recess and between classes.
“It’s been a little bit of a scary process trying to get in the mindset that they need to go back, but worrying if the schools are prepared enough to handle what’s coming,” Hynes said.
“It’s the fear of all these last-minute instructions and information being released.”
Schools in the southwestern city have faced increased enrolment in recent years. A new school originally slated to open at the beginning of this year school has also been delayed.
Still, Brandon School Division superintendent Marc Casavant said the division has been able to find adequate space for each child. But he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of shuffling students around to other schools if the situation in the region worsens.
Right now, even though the health region that includes Brandon is under the orange risk level, the division’s schools — like all schools is Manitoba — are opening under the yellow, or “caution,” level. The province’s education minister has said that’s because public health officials feel the increased restrictions in schools, compared to the rest of the region, make it safe for classes to return at that level.
“Certainly if we moved into a code orange, we are looking at the possibilities of what that will look like as we speak,” Casavant said.
The division is still working with the province to figure out what will happen when a student gets sick, or if schools are moved into the orange, or restricted, level, Casavant said. The division will take the lead from public health on what action to take in that case.
“We know that it’s not going to be an easy start, but we are certainly appreciative to the fact that [staff] have come back to work with the energy that they have to get ready,” he said.
Aston said he believes staff are generally happy to be back in the classroom, despite the added pressure and worries.
“We feel like we’re prepared and we’re doing everything possible to keep everyone safe,” he said.
Students at his school will stagger their first day between Wednesday and Friday — with all students expected in the building by the end of the week.
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