Teachers in Brandon, Winnipeg scramble with 'overwhelming' transition to remote learning

All kindergarten to Grade 12 students in Winnipeg and Brandon are moving to remote learning starting Wednesday in an effort to curb Manitoba's rising third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. That's putting administrators and teachers under pressure to deliver both in classroom and remote learning on short notice.

Teachers have little time to prepare as they pivot to remote learning by Wednesday morning.

Teachers in Winnipeg and Brandon are scrambling to move to remote learning by Wednesday. With still having to teach in their regular classrooms Monday and Tuesday, they say they will be left to flush out the details of a plan on their own time. (Jessica Grant)

Teacher Jessica Grant knew a switch to remote learning was coming, but she didn't know it would be with such short notice.

"It's overwhelming. I think the amount of notice we have been given is unfortunate because I think I have learned a lot from the first round of remote learning in the last school year," said Grant, 33, who teaches Grades 1 to 3 at R.F. Morrison School in the Seven Oaks School Division. 

School divisions in Winnipeg and Brandon were notified of the switch Sunday afternoon in a press conference held by Education Minister Cliff Cullen alongside Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin. Students will stay at home until May 30. 

Grant isn't alone in feeling overwhelmed with little time to prepare. Other teachers who didn't want to be interviewed, or told CBC they didn't have the time, are echoing the same sentiment.

While they support the move for public health and safety reasons, they were caught off guard the decision was announced with a turnaround date to move to remote learning in three days. 

"It is surprising to me that we are moving to remote learning given the strong hesitancy to do it before for weeks," said Grant. 

Grant says the biggest challenge is not knowing how many students will remain in the classroom, and how many will be taught remotely.

"It's the uncertainty of who will be here and who won't. And then how everyone will get connected in order to do a meaningful job of teaching remotely," said Grant.

Some children to remain in class

Schools that move to remote learning will still be able to accommodate children of critical service workers from kindergarten to Grade 6. They'll also be able to accommodate kindergarten to Grade 12 students deemed high risk or who have certain disabilities.

School administrators have been going through class lists for weeks to determine which students are children of critical service workers, according to Kelly Barkman, superintendent of the River East Transcona School division, which has 42 schools and more than 16,000 students. 

A physically-distanced science classroom at Maples Collegiate. Most students in Winnipeg and Brandon will return to remote learning on Wednesday. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

"This is our third wave, and the education system has had to spin on a dime several times during the pandemic. We have been preparing for code red for months," said Barkman.

While he doesn't know the exact number of students who will be remaining in the classroom in his division, Barkman says senior administrators have been gathering that information using the government's critical service worker tier system. 

"Schools now need to start this in the next day in terms of who will be allowed to come to school and who will stay home, We are working through that right now," said Barkman. He adds teachers won't be expected to do in classroom teaching and remote at the same time. 

As for Grant, she spent the better part of Monday morning answering questions from her 19 students, who are confused and anxious. They are wondering who will be in class, and who will be staying home. 

"They were asking questions about what remote learning will look like and why we are doing it. Some think it's the end of the school year. I was trying to reassure them so far we think we will be coming back in June," said Grant.

While teachers were still expected to be in their regular classrooms Monday and Tuesday, they are left having to work out a plan on their own time while still waiting for precis details. 

"It is stressful for all of us.... But we can work through this together if people are patient and kind to each other," said Barkman.      

Added challenges 

For some teachers, this switch comes with added challenges. Maples Collegiate teacher Izzy Hawamda works with newcomers, and says his division sent letters home to parents in different languages to make sure they understand.

"I am a speaker of Arabic, so I called parents and families that speak Arabic and I explained to them what is happening here in our school. And we try to bridge that gap as much as we can in every possible way," he said.

Izzy Hawamda works with newcomer students at Maples Collegiate. (Justin Fraser/CBC )

Hawamda says while two days notice isn't long enough to prepare for remote learning, teachers have done it before.

"I have more tools in my in my bag, if you will, to be able to do my job hopefully better this time," he said.

"We do this because we we love our students, we do it because we we love connecting with them and their families."

Brandon teachers also preparing

Teachers in Manitoba's second largest city are also trying to get ready for the switch to remote learning. The president of the Brandon teachers association, Cale Dunbar, says while they don't have all of the details worked out just yet, they feel it's a good move.

"The cases in Brandon, while not quite as extreme as they are in Winnipeg, they're creeping up as well. So I think this is a good move as far as keeping the students and teachers safe," said Dunbar.

Desks are spaced apart in a classroom at Betty Gibson School in Brandon, Man. Teachers in Manitoba's second-largest city are still figuring out how to manage the sudden change, according to the Brandon Teacher's Association. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

He said the biggest concern is how teachers will manage the demands of teaching remote students as well as those who will still be coming to class. The numbers of children of critical service workers were still being sorted out, Dunbar said.

"Our divisions are well aware of the extreme workload demand that that can cause. So we're planning ways to address that," he said.

Dunbar said teachers were able to maintain a high level of education with the last abrupt switch to remote learning.

"I would say we're probably better prepared to go to remote learning than we were last year.... So hopefully this transition is going to be as smooth as possible."


Born and raised in Winnipeg, Marianne has always had a passion for seeking the truth. She began her career anchoring and reporting at CKX Brandon. From there she worked in both TV news and current affairs at CBC Saskatoon. For the past 25 years Marianne has worked in Winnipeg, both in radio and television. She was formerly a teacher in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

With files from Shannah-Lee Vidal and Sam Samson


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