Mixed reaction from parents on Manitoba's plan to reopen schools

While kids are gearing up to return to school, many parents are feeling mixed about the province's plan to keep students and staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

'I'm not feeling very comfortable,' says mother who plans to keep her son home

Swati Bharote said she is not comfortable sending her son Aaryan back, yet, and plans to keep him home for the first few months of school. (Courtesy Swati Bharote)

While kids are gearing up to return to school, many parents are feeling mixed emotions about the province's plan to keep students and staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kristy Whitwell is sending her three children back, reluctantly. 

She has twins, a boy and girl, heading into Grade 2 and a daughter beginning Grade 11.

"I'm completely uncomfortable with it," she said. "But it is the only option for myself as home learning did not work at all. It was a complete nightmare."

Whitwell said she plans on sending all of her kids with masks and hand sanitizer but she is concerned about how schools will actually keep kids apart, masks on and surfaces clean. 

On the other hand, she is self-employed and found at-home learning next to impossible and worries her children will fall further behind if it had to continue. 

Kristy Whitwell said she is not comfortable sending her kids back but feels she has no choice. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"There are no options that are really viable here," she said. 

Under the province's Restoring Safe Schools plan, the province is recommending, but not requiring, the use of masks for students from grades 5 to 12 in common areas and spaces in schools where physical distancing isn't possible.

Parents will be expected to screen their children for symptoms of the virus each morning and keep kids home if they are sick. 

Schools will enhance cleaning measures and bring in portable hand washing stations.

The plan also limits how many students will come in contact with each other during the day and on the playground by grouping students in cohorts of up to 75 and making sure cohorts don't mix.

Recess and lunch breaks will also have staggered start and end times.

At minimum, Whitwell said she would like to see all students wearing masks, as well as reduced class sizes or staggering the days students attend, to reduce the number of kids on site.

Some parents opting out

Meanwhile some parents, like Swati Bharote, have made the decision to keep their children home entirely. 

"I'm not feeling very comfortable," she said, noting that five new cases of COVID-19 announced in Manitoba on Thursday involve children under age 10.

Bharote's son is starting Grade 2 and she doesn't think physical distancing or masks will be possible among his young peers.

She and her husband, both software engineers, are working from home so she plans to keep her son home and have him work remotely, at least until December.

She wants to see how the virus caseload evolves through the fall and cold and flu season.  

"If they decide to go with the online classes that will be a very great help because we know he will be safe at home," she said.

Daughter 'getting stir-crazy'

Other parents like Matthew Dale, of Winnipeg, are feeling largely confident in the province's plan.

His daughter is starting Grade 7.

"Right now I feel comfortable with it, you can tell that she is kind of getting stir-crazy with being off since March," he said. "I think it would be good for her to get back to routine and seeing other kids."

Matthew Dale has a daughter going into Grade 7. He's mostly confident in the province's plan. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

He said the guidelines seem "clear cut and controlled" and he applauds the province's recommendation that older students should wear a mask.

Still, he wonders if rotating time between in-class and at-home learning might be a better alternative to reduce the number of students in class at one time, at least initially.

He also wonders how quickly information will be released to the school community if there is a positive case.

"How fast are they going to act upon letting parents know if there is cases?" he said. "I'd like to know as soon as possible if a kid's got it at the school."

Parents who are not comfortable sending their children to school can home-school them, but they won't be allowed to just keep them at home, the education minister previously said. 

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer,  said plans and protocols will continue to be assessed and evolve in response to the virus's spread.