Teachers' union president calls for smaller class sizes after COVID-19 outbreak in school

The head of the union representing Manitoba teachers is calling on the provincial government to do more to reduce class sizes after what appears to be the first case of COVID-19 transmission within a school.

MTS president James Bedford wants federal and provincial funding used to hire more teachers

Seven cases of COVID-19 have been identified at John Pritchard School in Winnipeg. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The head of the union representing Manitoba teachers is calling on the provincial government to do more to reduce class sizes after what appears to be the first case of COVID-19 transmission within a school.

"When we begin to look at the possibility of community transmission within schools, we need to think about social distancing, and there's not enough social distancing happening within classrooms. We still have large class sizes," said James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society.

Health officials are trying to find out how an outbreak of the virus started at John Pritchard School in Winnipeg, where the province has confirmed seven cases among students and staff. 

Bedford says many teachers have told him that their classes are either the same size or larger than last year. He wants the province to use some of the combined $185 million in provincial and federal funding at its disposal to hire more staff to reduce classes. 

Last month, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen announced the province would put up $52 million, in addition to $48 million school divisions had saved after in-class learning was suspended this spring, to pay for extra sanitization, personal protective equipment, and hiring more substitute teachers.

The announcement made no mention of hiring more staff to reduce class sizes. 

The federal government also pledged $85.4 million for Manitoba to help with school reopenings, but it remains unclear how the province intends to spend that money. 

"I think that money needs to be spent here in Manitoba, and it needs to be spent quickly here in Manitoba to reduce those class sizes," Bedford said.

'Scary' outbreak in school

Several parents that CBC News spoke to expressed concern that more wasn't being done to make class sizes smaller in Manitoba schools. 

"It's just to me, it's a no brainer. Classes are sometimes much too big," said Agnes Warkentin, whose son is enrolled in Garden Valley Collegiate in Winkler, Man.

"I think that the crowded classrooms are just going to exponentiate the COVID- 19 problem that we are already starting to see. And the classes need to be half the size."

The president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society, is calling for the province to use some the $185 million in federal and provincial funding available to help schools provide two-metre distance, hire more teachers. (John Robertson/CBC)

Courtney Marchant lives in Winnipeg and has a daughter in Grade 5 enrolled in public school, and a son in Grade 7 enrolled in a Catholic school. She says her son's class has 29 students in it.

"He can't get up without bumping into the desk that's in front of him or behind him," she said.

The outbreak at John Pritchard School is "scary," she said. 

"I know my kids are wondering, you know, 'What's going to happen if I get it? Am I going to die?'"

Marchant says her family would jump at the chance to do remote learning, as neither she nor her husband have the capacity to homeschool their children. 

Heather Didora lives in Oak Bluff, Man. and has two children, including one child in Grade 1. She questions why schools haven't adopted the two-metre physical distancing standard recommended by health experts. Instead, the province has called for a minimum of one metre between students, a standard that is still hard to achieve given current class sizes. 

"I fully support my child being in school," she said. "But I'm very disappointed in the overall lack … of support and planning that the provincial government has provided."

Didora wants to see mobile pods brought in to help schools provide more space for classes. 

Bedford says the cases in Manitoba schools have increased anxiety among staff.

"Just because we accept early on that incidences like this are going to happen in our schools, it doesn't make it any easier for the people going through it."

About the Author

Cameron MacLean

Online Reporter

Cameron MacLean is a journalist living in Winnipeg, Man. where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience covering news in the city and across the province, working in print, radio, television and online.

With files from Marjorie Dowhos


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