Manitoba

Mandatory remote-learning stint could harm at-risk kids, says Manitoba children's advocate

Manitoba's children's advocate wants the province to make a mandatory two-week remote learning stint after the winter break optional for all students. Daphne Penrose says forcing children who live in households with domestic violence to stay home could put them at greater risk.

Daphne Penrose says some students forced to learn from home for 2 weeks could face heightened threat of abuse

Manitoba's children's advocate Daphne Penrose is worried that a mandated two-week period of remote learning could put some students at risk. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Manitoba's children's advocate wants the province to tweak its mandatory remote-learning stint for students after the winter break to keep vulnerable kids safe.

On Wednesday, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen announced a mandatory two-week work-from-home period for students in grades 7 to 12. Students with disabilities in that range may continue to go to school.

But children's advocate Daphne Penrose says for youth who live in households where domestic violence is occurring, forcing them to stay home those two weeks could put them at greater risk.

Some who rely on going to school for a meal or two during the day may also be affected, she said.

"Schools provide so much more than just education for many, many, many children," said Penrose, noting teachers are also there to help students in need.

"They are a safety net, and they are a level of supervision that these kids have that, if you close the schools down, they otherwise don't."

The current plan gives students from kindergarten to Grade 6 the option of staying home or going to school during the post-holiday break period.

Penrose said she was  pleased to see that, because she says K-6 students represent a "critical age group," but she thinks it should be optional across the board.

The head of the union that represents Manitoba teachers said Wednesday he was "perplexed" by the decision to keep some students home and not others.

A government spokesperson said the move was made based on advice from Public Health experts, who considered a variety of factors in coming to a decision.

First wave concerns

During the first wave of the pandemic, students were sent home en masse. 

Penrose said some of the issues that surfaced at the time included a decrease in referrals to child and family services, and a heightened risk of kids being exposed to abuse more readily in some situations. She also said there was an increase in online exploitation of young people during that time.

"I think it's critically important that those schools are there for those kids," said Penrose. The quality of education also suffered, she said.

This time around, some students may still be without the needed devices or connectivity to participate remotely with their classmates, said Penrose.

The province said divisions bear a responsibility in ensuring all students have what they need.

"School divisions are responsible for ensuring access to technology for those who need it and accommodating students with special learning needs including students at risk," a spokesperson said in a statement.

Expanding testing for teachers

Penrose is encouraged by a subsequent announcement on Thursday by the premier.

In the New Year, Manitoba teachers will be part of a rapid COVID-19 testing pilot. Brian Pallister said a $40-million order of equipment will help the province deliver as many as 45,000 tests a month. That means every teacher and educational support staff will be able to be tested twice a month for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, Pallister said, although he noted only symptomatic teachers will be tested initially.

The announcement didn't include any promise to extend the same rapid test ability to students. The New Democrats and Liberals have suggested the province needs to begin doing asymptomatic testing in schools in order to get a true sense of transmission. So far, there have been six confirmed outbreaks, according to the education minister.

Penrose deferred to Public Health on the question of whether these rapid tests should be available to students, but she said expanding test capacity, speeding up result times and bolstering contact tracing are things parents and teachers have been asking for as added safety measures.

"I think that having testing, whether it's rapid testing or other testing with quick results back, should be available to everyone as much as possible," she said.

The mandatory rule is expected to keep nearly half of all Manitoba students out of the classroom for the beginning of January. It's set to run from Jan. 4-15.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, climate, health and more. He recently finished up a stint as a producer for CBC's Quirks & Quarks. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

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