When it comes to enduring pandemic adversity, Manitoba schools are at the front of the class

There is no simple answer to the question as to what set of conditions would justify sending kids back home from school. In Manitoba, where the widepread transmission of COVID-19 has led to the worst infection rates in Canada, the answer appears to be never.

If kids aren't sent home when the test-positivity rates top 14 per cent, they may never be sent home

Classrooms in Manitoba were empty this spring, when the pandemic was mild compared to the fall surge. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

In New York City, restaurants and theatres are open while in-class learning has been cancelled for roughly 1.1 million students in public schools.

In Winnipeg and elsewhere in Manitoba, most of the province's 212,000 students are still going to class at least a few days a week while restaurants and theatres are shuttered.

New York City's decision to yank kids from school was triggered by a a single pandemic indicator: The percentage of COVID-19 tests in the city reached a seven-day average of three per cent.

In Manitoba, the five-day provincial test-positivity rate reached a record 14.2 per cent on Wednesday, almost five times the rate in the largest city in the U.S.

Yet Manitoba's students will shuffle off to class this morning, assuming this is one of those days when they actually have class, while their counterparts New York City will roll over in bed and swipe on their iPads as they return to remote learning.

Parents everywhere in Manitoba, from Winnipeg to Wawanesa to Wabowden, have every right to be confused.

Ever since kids were sent back to class in September, some parents have expressed fears about the transmission of the virus in classrooms, many of which were crowded prior to the pandemic.

Commuters wear face masks while walking through the World Trade Center's transportation hub in New York City on Tuesday. New York's test-positivity rate has crept above three per cent, triggering a school closure. (Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press)

Other parents, especially those in families where every adult has to work in order to make ends meet, expressed fears their kids would be sent back home.

There is no simple answer to the question as to what set of conditions would justify sending kids back home from school.

In Manitoba, where the widespread transmission of COVID-19 has led to the worst infection rates in Canada, the answer appears to be never.

"We're not going to rush into going to full-time remote learning," Manitoba Chief Provincial Public Health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said on Wednesday.

"We know that's an option and I mean, it's been an option, right? When we started thinking about getting the kids back in school, we had options in place for that, should they be required."

Students in Manitoba headed back to class in September after missing three months of the prior school year. (Marianne Klowak/CBC)

Roussin's use of the term "rush" stands the risk of rankling antsier parents, who've watched with increasing horror as Manitoba's daily COVID-19 case counts and five-day test-positivity rates crept higher and higher since the start of September.

The fall pandemic surge did not arrive suddenly in a massive wave. It worsened slowly, in stages, unimpeded by the incremental application of new restrictions, initially on the Winnipeg Metropolitan Region and eventually on the entire province. 

"We have a very high test positivity rate and we need to get that down," Roussin said. "Despite that, we're not seeing a lot of transmission within schools."

That comment as well has the potential to drive more nervous parents batty. The question is how Roussin can state with so much certainty transmission is not taking place within schools while he also states Manitoba has lost track of the way COVID-19 is spreading in Manitoba.

Those two statements, however, are not mutually exclusive. Manitoba's failure to figure out how roughly a fifth of its COVID-19 cases are spreading is not evidence that disease is spreading within schools.

So far, there have been COVID-19 outbreaks in no fewer than four Manitoba schools. Other schools have reported — or failed to report, if you speak to some parents — a mere handful of cases.

A large body of epidemiological evidence suggests schools merely reflect the background level of community transmission in any given jurisdiction. There's also evidence schools do serve as disease vectors in their own right.

Manitoba seems to be entertaining both ideas by keeping kids in school now while musing about extending the Christmas break for a few weeks to ensure infections acquired at home over the holidays are contained at home and not transmitted to peers or teachers in early January.

Again, parents have every right to be confused.

Roussin said he will consult with colleagues across Canada about whether to extend the Christmas break. It would be unfair to characterize that statement as indecision: There is no playbook for public policy during a global pandemic.

Manitoba did create a guide of some form when it devised its pandemic response system. Sending all students home is an option once any area is elevated to code red, or critical.

It's unclear how bad the fall surge would have to get before that happens. No one at the province, or perhaps in the province, envisioned the pandemic becoming as serious in Manitoba as it is right now.

If there is no intention to ever pull kids from school — aside from a few weeks in January — then it would be fair for parents to demand to hear that stated outright. 

It won't comfort the antsy ones, but it would provide some certainty.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.


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