All Manitoba students to return to school, but some high schools won't be full time

All Manitoba students will return to schools on Sept. 8 but provincial officials warn it will be far from a normal school year — and for some older students, it may be for only part of the week.

Students from kindergarten to Grade 8 will be back in class full time, with distancing and cohorting

Students are pictured being welcomed back to school with physical distancing protocols in place at Lynn Valley Elementary in North Vancouver, B.C., on June 1.
Manitoba announced its plans for reopening schools this fall at a news conference on Thursday afternoon. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Manitoba students will return to schools on Sept. 8, but provincial officials warn it will be far from a normal school year — and some older students may only be in the classroom part time.

Learning will be full time in classrooms for all students from kindergarten to Grade 8, while high schoolers may have some remote learning, depending on whether schools can ensure physical distancing, officials said Thursday. 

Students at all grade levels with intellectual, physical, sensory, emotional or behavioural disabilities will also be back in class full time, according to the province's back-to-school planning document.

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said the best place for students is in the classroom, but acknowledged that schools will not look like they did last September.

"The clear objective is that we are able to return students to in-class learning while providing an environment that strives to protect all those who are in the school," he said. 

Many students in kindergarten to Grade 8 will be in cohorts of up to 75 students. 

It's up to school divisions to figure out how to allow as many high school students as possible to attend classes in-person, while still physically distancing.

High school students will need to be in school for at least two days out of a six-day cycle, but the province is expecting schools will achieve a higher level than that. 

The province is not recommending or requiring the use of masks, but students and staff are welcome to wear them if they want. 

Divisions may bring in more buses

Last month, Goertzen said there will be less capacity on school buses when students return, meaning schools will rely "heavily" on parents to transport their kids to class.

Goertzen said Thursday the province will still be encouraging parents to drop their children off if possible, but divisions may bring in more buses or organize different bus runs if needed. 

"But I don't think the situation is as challenging as we imagined it might be a month ago," he said. 

"I think we can give some comfort to parents that, if they simply can't bring their child to school, that they will be able to have the bus service that they have come to rely on."

Province could scale up restrictions 

COVID-19 prevention efforts will be measured in levels. The return to classes will begin at Level 1 in September, but this may be scaled up depending on COVID-19 cases in the province.

Level 1 involves enforcing two metres of physical distancing between students to the greatest extent possible. When not possible, students will be organized in cohorts and space will be arranged to encourage separation, including the use of larger areas like multipurpose rooms, according to the province's school guidelines. 

In this scenario, there will be a minimum of one metre between students as they sit in their classrooms.

Schools will also need to limit gatherings in common areas such as lunchrooms and will be encouraged to use outdoor venues as much as possible. Lunches and recesses will be staggered and teachers will move across classrooms instead of students, to limit the number of people gathering in hallways and schoolyards.

Assemblies and gatherings that exceed whatever the current public health guidelines are at that time won't be allowed.

The province is also putting a number of other guidelines in place to ensure student safety, including no sharing of food or school supplies and turning off water fountains if they can't be cleaned between uses or are not touchless. 

Sports and gym classes can continue as long as they meet physical distancing requirements.

Schools will need to assess their ability to continue other extracurricular activities, the guidelines say. Field trips will be allowed, but out-of-province travel is not recommended. 

Under Level 2, schools would prioritize kindergarten to Grade 8 students for in-class learning, while high school students would use remote learning, with limited use of school facilities for specific programming and assessment.

If the province needs to go to Level 3, all students would return to remote learning and schools would be closed, with the exception of students from kindergarten to Grade 6 who are children of critical workers.

These levels could be applied to individual schools or groups of schools at any time, depending on the COVID-19 situation in the province.

Parents will learn more about the specifics of their school's plan when school divisions release their plans by mid-August, officials said Thursday. 

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Protocols if students gets sick

Because students and staff will be encouraged to stay home whenever sick, the province expects a higher absenteeism rate than normal, Goertzen said. 

Teachers will provide at-home learning packages for students in isolation, and it will be important for schools to have more substitute teachers on hand, officials said. 

Remote learning will also be offered by school divisions for students who can't return to class for medical reasons. 

If a students starts showing COVID-19 symptoms while at school, they will be isolated in a predetermined space until a parent or caregiver can come pick them up. Where a separate room is not available, they must be kept at least two metres away from others, according to the province's guidelines. 

The sick student will be given a medical mask to wear until they are taken home, unless there are safety concerns that prevent the student from wearing a mask.

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If a staff member or volunteer becomes symptomatic while in school, they will be required to immediately isolate themselves from other staff and students, notify their supervisor, and go home to monitor symptoms.

Last month, the provincial government said it was aiming for a September return with some precautions but was preparing three possible scenarios, depending on the COVID-19 situation in the fall.

Manitoba schools were closed on March 23 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but learning continued online.

Schools had a limited reopening in June. Staff returned and some students attended for things like end-of-year assessments and other physically distanced activities.

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All Manitoba students will return to school on Sept. 8 but provincial officials warn it will be far from a normal school year, with restrictions and changes in place including classroom cohorts and continued remote learning for high schools.

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