Manitoba schools 'will rely heavily' on parents dropping off students next fall: education minister
There will be less seating capacity on school buses to ensure physical distancing
Fewer Manitoba students will be singing about the wheels on the bus when they go back to class in the fall, the province says.
To ensure physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be less capacity on school buses. That means schools will rely on parents who can transport their kids to class, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said during a news conference Thursday.
"[Getting kids to school] is probably the biggest challenge, and … probably the one that department officials and public health wrestled with the most," Goertzen said.
"We will rely heavily on parents who are able to bring their kids to school to do that, and that, I think, will alleviate a lot of the pressures."
In which regions parents are most able to drop off their kids, and how much pressure parents truly take off of the schools, won't be known until the fall, he said.
But he cited a survey sent to parents with school-aged children in Manitoba, which received 30,000 responses — about half of which said parents could and are willing to drive their kids to school during the pandemic.
Goertzen noted that dropping kids off at school may be inconvenient, but the pandemic has been "inconvenient for everybody."
The Winnipeg School Division received information about back-to-school "at about the same time as the public," a spokesperson said.
"We're going to take some time today and tomorrow to review it and identify what additional items we need to apply to our existing framework for reopening schools in WSD."
The Louis Riel School Division is keeping its focus on community safety and support, and guidance from the province will inform its planning and decisions, said superintendent Christian Michalik through a spokesperson.
"Our goal is to create an approach that maximizes well-being and mitigates risk," said Michalik, adding that a "comprehensive plan for a safe return to schools" will be available no later than June 30.
The safety issues schools will have to navigate will revolve around the significant increase in traffic, including ensuring physical distancing occurs on school grounds, and the safety of students walking or biking to school, said James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society, which represents 16,000 public school teachers.
That responsibility will likely fall to school principals, said Bedford.
"Teachers want students to be safe, and I've not met a school principal who has not said student safety is one of our priorities," he said.
CBC News contacted other school divisions around Winnipeg and the Manitoba School Boards Association for comment, but had not heard back as of Thursday night.
Brenda Brazeau, executive director Manitoba Association of Parent Councils, an organization that speaks for parents with kids in public school, warns that the province may receive some flak if parents start getting penalized for driving their kids to school.
"Say they work at seven o'clock, and all of a sudden they're dropping their kids off at eight o'clock at school, they're an hour late. How is that going to evolve?" said Brazeau, who is also a mother of six.
The province also has to consider what to do if someone is written up for being late to work, and how to accommodate families without automobiles, she said.
Resorting to other drop-off arrangements also presents an opportunity for schools to promote active transportation, says Sean Carlson, sustainable transportation co-ordinator at Green Action Centre in Winnipeg.
"With disruptions being the best time to change behaviours and change habits, that by only emphasizing kids being driven to school, we're missing out on a really valuable opportunity to turn things around," said Carlson, who works directly with schools on active transportation.
Carlson points to designated active transportation routes in Winnipeg, including a stretch of Wellington Crescent, that allows people to walk and bike on the road as an example.
He notes that implementing such plans depends on the individual school, but says that even designated drop-off zones a short distance from the school would allow opportunities for less vehicular traffic, and children to gain independence by walking to school safely.
With files from Jill Coubrough