Manitoba moves to remote learning for most students until Jan. 17
Classes resume Monday after extended break, with most students learning remotely for 1 week
Manitoba is shifting to one week of remote learning after the extended holiday break to give school divisions time to address expected staffing shortages and develop plans to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Premier Heather Stefanson announced on Tuesday.
The province had already delayed the return to school after the winter break by a few days, until Jan. 10, to assess the impact of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
Classes will resume next Monday, with most students in remote learning until Jan. 17.
Kindergarten to Grade 6 students who are children of critical service workers, as well as some K-12 students with disabilities, will be able to attend school in person if no alternative care is available.
"We know our children learn best in a classroom setting and it is our goal to ensure they can return to the classroom as quickly as possible," Stefanson said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference.
Education Minister Cliff Cullen said the province plans to expand the number of rapid testing kits offered to schools, particularly those with high numbers of COVID-19 cases, as the supply increases.
So far, 550,000 rapid tests have been distributed to schools across the province for use when students from kindergarten to Grade 6 are back in class, Cullen said.
Medical-grade masks will also be required for staff when classes resume. Students will be asked to wear well-fitting masks with at least three layers.
Manitoba will distribute at least five million more child and adult medical masks over the next two months as demand increases, Cullen said.
"Education is very important from a public health perspective," deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said at Tuesday's news conference.
"We're doing what we can to mitigate COVID-19 issues within school settings. We're going to continue to work on that and strive for that and get those kids back into the classroom."
He called the shift to remote learning "an interim step — a phased-in approach to make sure we can mitigate, as much as possible, the impacts of COVID-19."
Child-care facilities can stay open
Child-care facilities that offer year-round service, including those in schools, can remain open and are being asked to prioritize children of critical service workers, the province says.
Facilities that operate based on the school calendar and do not provide service during school breaks will provide care to children of critical service workers who need before- and after-school care.
As of Jan. 10, licensed child-care centres and in-home facilities will be able to apply for funding support to offset the loss of parent fees, the province says. That will include situations where a facility has to reduce capacity due to staffing shortages or if it is required to close by public health officials.
Details on how to apply will be provided directly to facilities.
In recent days, the Manitoba Teachers' Society and the board of the province's largest school division had publicly called for moving almost all students to remote learning.
The union and the Winnipeg School Division's board of trustees both said they wanted schools to move back to red-level restrictions, the highest on the province's pandemic response system, at least for the month of January.
In a statement last Friday, the union said it was opposed to any hybrid learning arrangements and optional remote learning, which Bedford said make teachers' jobs "extraordinarily difficult."
The statement also asked the province to provide medical-grade N95 masks to all education staff who are still at school during remote learning, since the children of critical service workers would still be allowed to go to class.
Betty Edel, the chair of the Winnipeg School Division's board of trustees, sent a letter to the province with a similar request for remote learning and safety measures. She also wants to see rapid tests made available to all staff and students.
Government 'negligent': coalition
Some critics say the Progressive Conservative government's move to postpone in-class learning for another week is reactive, rather than proactive.
Safe September MB, a coalition of teachers and parents, says the province should immediately prioritize COVID-19 vaccines and boosters for children in schools and staff, and provide N95 or equivalent masks to all staff and students, among other things.
"Once again, our provincial government has been negligent in their duty to protect families, children, educators, and our public education system," the coalition said in a news release following Tuesday's announcement.
NDP education critic Nello Altomare said he doesn't see what difference five days of remote learning will make in efforts to curb COVID-19 transmission.
The school system "obsessively plans, as opposed to what this government does. It doesn't plan, it just simply reacts," the Transcona MLA told reporters at the Manitoba legislature.
Funding bump for schools
Cullen also announced that the province will spend up to $80 million in new education funding during this school year — some of which will be for COVID-19-related expenses, and some of which will help pay for new wage agreements for teachers reached late in the last school year.
The education minister didn't have exact figures on how the $80 million in funding will be broken down.
"We've had some feedback from school divisions in terms of their pressures in regards to the new contract they've signed with teachers," he said. Several school divisions said last spring they couldn't afford wage bumps for teachers.
Normally, funding for schools would be announced in February, Cullen said, but he wanted to provide those figures earlier as school boards budget for the next year.
"We recognize the extra pressures they have this year as a result of the agreement," he said.
WATCH | Full news conference on remote learning | January 4, 2022:
With files from Darren Bernhardt