Schools in Winnipeg, northern Manitoba must make more space under extra COVID-19 measures
Students in K-8 may be offered remote learning, province says as new measures announced
The Manitoba government has announced new measures for schools in Winnipeg and the surrounding area, and in the Northern Health region, including requirements to spread students out in class and cancel field trips.
The restrictions for schools will come into effect Monday and remain in place as long as the Winnipeg metropolitan area and the Northern Health region remain at the orange, or restricted, level on the province's pandemic response system.
The Winnipeg area has been at that level since Sept. 28. The province announced Thursday that the Northern Health region will move to that level as of Monday.
The new rules are a response to increasing community transmission of COVID-19, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Thursday.
Speaking at an afternoon news conference, Roussin said schools remain a low-risk environment for COVID-19 transmission.
"We are seeing, though, more widespread community transmission, so this increases the amount of cases we see in schools, even though they are not acquired in schools," he said.
Starting Monday, schools in the orange regions will have to ensure two metres of physical distance between students "to the greatest extent possible," the province's new rules say.
The province advises schools to reconfigure classrooms and move furniture to make extra space, along with repurposing common areas, libraries, multi-purpose rooms and empty classrooms.
Previously, the province had said that one-metre distance was the minimum requirement in classrooms.
Students in kindergarten to Grade 8 may be offered temporary remote learning.
Extracurricular activities are only permitted if all learning and distancing requirements are met. Anyone involved in sports activities should maintain distance when they aren't actively participating.
Under the new measures, all field trips must be either postponed or cancelled. Indoor choir and the use of wind instruments are not permitted.
As well, any staff who move between different cohorts (including substitute teachers) are required to wear medical-grade, disposable masks.
Those masks have been given to all schools where the new rules will apply, Roussin said.
Concern for teachers
Manitoba Teachers' Society president James Bedford says he's concerned about potential burnout for teachers if the province expands the availability of remote learning.
"We'd like to know, are these students who are learning remotely going to continue to be the responsibility of the classroom teacher, or are they going to be the responsibility of a virtual school within the division?"
He also worries the extra distancing requirements could require teachers to spread their classes out over multiple rooms, forcing staff to move between rooms several times every hour to work with students.
A spokesperson for Winnipeg School Division, though, said the new rules won't mean many big changes for its schools.
"The main change for us is that where we could have spacing at one metre if we had cohorts in the elementary grades, we need to do everything possible to space things out to have the full two metres," Radean Carter said in an email statement.
"For some of our schools, this is already achieved, but for others it will mean removing some more furniture."
Remote learning may be offered if schools can't meet the two-metre distancing, Carter said.
The division had already planned to limit field trips until the winter, so the new rules won't impact students in that way, she said.
The Louis Riel School Division in southeastern Winnipeg also said, via a statement posted to its website, that its 40 schools are already meeting the majority of the public health safety requirements under the orange response level. Teachers and other staff will now switch to using medical-grade masks instead of reusable face masks, the division said.
In a statement sent to parents, the Pembina Trails School Division said it has been planning for many scenarios, including being moved to the orange response level, since the summer.
"We will work together to ensure a smooth transition and that all schools are following the updated public health guidelines. We will be sharing more about what this means for our school communities soon," the statement from the southwest Winnipeg division said.
Meanwhile, the Division Scolaire Franco-Manitobaine is giving parents with students in kindergarten to Grade 8 the option to continue in-class learning, or switch to remote learning when the schools move to the orange response level.
The division sent a letter home to parents on Thursday, asking them to indicate their choice to schools by Monday.
With files from Bartley Kives and Caitlyn Gowriluk