Parents call on Manitoba government to make remote learning available for every student

As the number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise some Manitoba parents want to know why remote learning won't be an option for all students like it is in other provinces such as Ontario and Saskatchewan.

Virtual learning options limited to those with medical conditions while Ontario offers remote learning for all

Julie Allard is worried about sending her two kids back to school after a rise in COVID-19 cases. She wants to know why the province isn't offering remote learning as an option for every kid. (John Einarson CBC)

Some Manitoba parents worry about the spike in COVID-19 cases and want to know why remote learning won't be an option for all kids going back to school, like it is in other provinces such as Ontario and Saskatchewan.

"We have such small classrooms, and I don't feel there is room to social distance," said Julie Allard, a mother of twin boys, Elijah and Malikah who are going into Grade 2.

The Dugald, Man., mother said she wants to have the option of keeping her boys home and do virtual classes instead.

"It's a risk and it's a gamble and I feel like we're playing a bit of a game here with our kids," she said.

According to Manitoba's back to school plan, children up to Grade 8 will return to class full-time, while high school students will do half of their learning online. 

The province says remote learning will be offered to students with compromised immune systems. Parents would also need to provide a doctor's note.

Parents want option 'to decide what's best for our children'

Allard wants to know why remote learning isn't an option for parents who are uneasy about sending their kids to school during the pandemic, similar to models in Ontario and Saskatchewan.

"I don't understand why this hasn't been an option here, why aren't we given an option to decide what's best for our children?" said Allard. 

She's now considering home-schooling but adds that can be costly. Allard said she would rather have her kids do virtual learning so they can stay connected with their teachers and friends.

Julie Allard is not sure about sending her 7-year-old twin boys Elijah and Malakai back to school. She wants to know why remote learning isn't an option in Manitoba as it is in other provinces like Ontario. (John Einarson/CBC)

In other provinces like Ontario, students of all ages can opt for online learning as a way to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the classroom.

The Saskatoon Public School Division says students who don't want to attend school can enrol for the full year in online learning. It will also have multiple re-entry points if someone is online and wants to move back into in-person learning. 

Fear of the unknown

Winnipeg mother Cheryl Boehler said the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Manitoba has made her anxious. 

"I just can't in good conscience put my kids back into a public school environment, we have no idea what the impact of the virus could be on these children," she said.

Boehler and her family moved to Winnipeg from Austin, Texas, in March, when the pandemic began.

Cheryl Boehler is concerned about the risk of exposure of COVID-19 in schools. The Transcona mother says if remote learning isn't an option for her two kids, she will home-school. (Cheryl Boehler)

"We moved here from the United States and we have a concept of how bad and how sideways the whole explosion of the virus can go."

Boehler said she won't be sending her two kids back to school. Her son who is going into Grade 2 has autism spectrum disorder, and he needs to maintain connections with his peers, she said.

Boehler said the decision to not send him back has been difficult. "I don't know, we don't know how worse this [pandemic] can get, and to me that outweighs the social aspect of all this," she said.

Erika Enns from Altona, Man., plans to send her two kids — who are six and nine years old — back to school but would like to have the option of virtual learning in the event cases of COVID-19 continue to rise.

Her husband is a teacher and she worries about the risk of exposure. "I just feel so torn apart about this, you want your kids to have a social life ... but I feel like we don't have a choice," she said

Teachers say more resources needed

"I think the government should have a program where people have the option to access remote learning if that is something that is necessary for them," said Lindsay Brown, a Grade 11 teacher who also said more resources would be needed to make that successful.

"Teachers shouldn't be asked to do both, teachers shouldn't be asked to do in person and remotely, we should be hiring teachers who understand the pedagogy of remote learning." 

Brown was part of a rally Thursday night called Safe September. The group is calling for more action from the Manitoba government to make schools safer and make remote learning an option.

The province has not said why remote learning won't be available to those who want it, but maintains schools will be safe. In an email to CBC, a spokesperson for the Manitoba government said the health and safety of students is the highest priority.

"The province will continue to work closely with school divisions to identify their specific needs to deliver a safe, healthy learning environment for students and staff. That's why on Monday we announced $100 million in safe schools funding." the statement said.

Timeline of Manitoba's COVID-19 daily cases since early March when pandemic began and schools shut down. (CBC)

"I was actually quite astounded that this [remote learning] wasn't being offered in Manitoba because I think that it would cut costs," said Dr. Joanna Black, a professor at the University of Manitoba in the Faculty of Education.

She said fewer kids and staff at schools would reduce maintenance costs to the buildings.

"Also it would prevent the overpopulation of schools, I mean we have to decrease populations in schools right now with COVID-19."

Black said if the plan does change, teachers should not be asked to do both in-class and remote sessions. She suggests Manitoba teachers who are over the age of 60, or with health concerns, would benefit by offering remote learning.

Black also stressed younger students would have a harder time with remote learning compared to high school kids, and she said parents would need to step up at home.

"I think it would have to be augmented heavily by the parents, I really do," she said. "The parent cannot say 'okay we've got online learning here therefore I'm not involved, it's the teacher's responsibility.' That would not be beneficial at all."

This story was possible thanks to Manitobans who filled out CBC's back-to-school survey. In it, we asked parents, teachers and students to send us their top concerns and questions about the unprecedented school year ahead.