Some parents and educators upset over province's plan to reopen businesses, but not schools

Critics are questioning why Manitobans can get haircuts, but can’t send their kids back to school.

They say they’re concerned for their children’s mental health and education

The province's efforts to save money have come at the expense of the classroom, says Winnipeg parent and educator Domanie Billinghurst-Schadek. (BlurryMe/Shutterstock)

Some Manitobans are disappointed over the province's decision to keep schools closed for the rest of the school year, despite allowing non-essential businesses to reopen on Monday. 

Those critics say having children stay at home further will diminish their quality of education and mental health.

Marilyn Simon, a mother based in Winnipeg, said she's worried for her two daughters who are six and 10. Simon also has a Manitoba teaching certificate and taught in the school system for a number of years. 

She questions why the province can't act sooner to bring kids back to the classroom, unlike some other jurisdictions. 

"Why not? And to say that we don't want to create a situation where this is spread further. Well, then why are people going to get haircuts?" Simon asked. 

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, said opening schools will not be part of the Phase 1 plan. It won't be considered until Phase 2, which isn't until June. 

"We certainly look to other jurisdictions on things they're doing but we're going to do a made-in-Manitoba plan," he said.  

Roussin admits children are not huge transmitters of the virus and are not a driving force behind the COVID-19 pandemic, unlike influenza. 

"When we look at the timing, now we're into June and we have such short time frames, so it just didn't seem to work well for the Manitobans' plan, but we always continue to look at that option," said Roussin. 

Students falling behind, says psychologist 

Dr. Jen Theule, a child psychologist and professor at the University of Manitoba, said having students be away from the classroom for six months can drastically set them back. 

Manitoba schools have been closed since March because of the pandemic. 

Theule says because teachers are working with kids remotely, all students will be behind in the curriculum.

"Everyone will be behind but the kids who are already struggling, the gap for them is going to have widened considerably, they're the ones who we should be worrying about," she said.

Theule said based on her research with elementary school children, they need routine, normality and relationships to sustain their mental health — and these aspects are missing when they're not at school. 

"We're also getting a whole host of kids who have anxiety about school that's going to increase," said Theule.  

Simon said she's also worried about her children's mental health. Her daughters haven't seen their friends for six weeks. 

"It's not really how kids should learn. This isn't how social interactions are supposed to happen at this young formative age, so you know, it's tough. I don't know a single parent who isn't finding it hard," said Simon. 

'Working with stakeholders'  

James Bedford, president of Manitoba's Teachers' Society said he understands educators are facing challenges, especially when they're teaching in remote communities without adequate internet connection or are teaching subjects like French, which requires classroom engagement. 

Bedford said the society has met with Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen, who said the ministry will continue to follow Roussin's advice. 

In an email statement, a spokesperson for the ministry said, "Manitoba Education is working with stakeholders to determine what classrooms reopening will look like.

"This involves discussion with public health officials, school divisions and others to ensure the safety of students is paramount," it reads. 

Concerns over safety remain

Brenda Brazeau, president of Manitoba Association of Parent Councils, said she's still hearing concerns of contagion at school from parents. 

"We're talking about young children, we're talking about teenagers," she said. "Children touch each other, things and hold hands all this stuff. How do you stop that from happening?" 

Brazeau also has a daughter in Grade 9 and says she prefers to keep her at home for now. 

"If it means keeping her safe, then that's our plan as a family," she said. "Safety first." 

Brazeau said MPAC hasn't been consulted by the province yet about schools reopening, but the association will be having a meeting with the ministry of education on Monday. 

With files from CBC's Meaghan Ketcheson