Manitoba Teachers' Society pleads for school closures by Wednesday

The head of the Manitoba Teachers' Society is calling on the province to shut down schools by Wednesday.

Province announced class suspensions that would keep students home starting next week, but not teachers

The head of the Manitoba Teachers' Society is calling for schools to close — not just class suspensions. (Warren Kay/CBC)

The head of the Manitoba Teachers' Society is calling on the province to shut down schools by Wednesday.

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen announced Friday that classes for all kindergarten to Grade 12 students will be suspended from March 23 to April 13, in response to the novel coronavirus arriving in Manitoba. Suspending classes means students will stay home, but teachers and staff will still work.

In a letter addressed to Goertzen, MTS president James Bedford took issue with the week-long wait and asked that educators be allowed to work from home.

"In many classrooms across Manitoba, increasing the distance between desks is not feasible since the classrooms are already crowded," wrote Bedford, whose organization represents 16,000 public school teachers.

"In younger grades, there are no individual desks because the students often sit at round tables. More importantly, we have learned from watching other cities that asymptomatic transmission is possible and that time is of the essence in helping to flatten the curve."

Bedford told CBC News teachers are anxious, both about students' health, as well as their own and their families.

James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society, sent a letter Monday to Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen about shutting down schools. (Submitted by the Manitoba Teachers' Society)

Many teachers developed take-home learning packages over the weekend so students have them on Monday, ensuring children stay on course to finish the curriculum on time, Bedford said.

The province gave a week's notice of class suspensions so parents can make child-care arrangements and the education system can prepare.

"[Teachers] are ready to go, to send those students home... and have passed along information and materials to them," Bedford said Monday.

"It makes good sense to be suspending classes, and if we can do that sooner then I think we should do that sooner."

Minister Goertzen said Monday that the move was guided by medical advice.

"You do not want politicians making decisions politically in a time of pandemic. You need to be guided by people who are experts in this," he said.

The province is following the advice of medical professionals before taking action against the spread of COVID-19, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said at a Monday news conference. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"I get why there's questions and that's entirely fair … but I think medical professionals have to be leading that."

During the province's daily COVID-19 update, Manitoba's chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said closing schools is a matter of timing.

"Almost all of the evidence shows that the closing of schools should really occur when we see either cases in schools, or we have sustained community-based transmission," Roussin told reporters Monday.

"We have not seen community-based transmission, we have not seen cases within our schools."

Roussin said Monday that schools would normally close in cases of community or school-based transmission. There are no cases of that in Manitoba, he said. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

All eight cases of COVID-19 in Manitoba have been travel-related, and he doesn't expect any community transmission at this time, he said.

Currently, classes are set to resume in mid-April, but Roussin said the province will continue assessing the situation and an extension will be granted if needed.

'Schools need to close immediately'

Schools in Alberta and Saskatchewan shut down after people tested positive for COVID-19 through community transmission.

And while Roussin says all eight cases in Manitoba are travel-related, one health professional believes otherwise.

"The schools need to close immediately," said Winnipeg's Dr. Lisa Bryski, who is coming out of retirement to help with COVID-19 response.

"The vector of transmission is people — people being together — and any gathering puts us at risk right now."

Bryski notes that, although young people are at low risk, they are likely to come in contact with people who are of the age that are at risk.

"[Acting] pre-emptively is much more prudent and safer at this point," she said, noting that test results may take up to two weeks to get back.

"We are in unprecedented times... so that's why we don't want to take a chance, because we don't want to find out we were too slow to act." 

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson, Bartley Kives, Ian Froese and Nelly Gonzalez