Manitoba

Return to school brings anxiety for some tight-knit Filipino families in Manitoba

As one of three diabetic members in his household, Hernan Mercado is worried his family will be in danger once his two elementary-aged children are exposed to their many classmates, none of whom will be required to don masks at school.

'I would rather go to jail than have my kid get sick,' says dad who plans to keep kids home for first weeks

Hernan Mercado is planning to keep his kids out of school for the early part of September because he's worried about exposure to COVID-19. Three members of his household are diabetic, and thus more susceptible to severe symptoms from the disease. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Hernan Mercado says he isn't the type of person to overreact.

But the Winnipeg father cannot shake the feeling that sending his kids to school in a pandemic feels like tossing them into a lion's cage.

"The caretaker would probably tell me, 'It's OK, he's trained, he won't bite,'" he said. "But are you going to take your chances sending your kids inside that cage?"

Mercado doesn't want to.

As one of three diabetic members in his household, he's vulnerable to more severe symptoms if he does get COVID-19. He's worried his family will be in danger once his two elementary-aged children are exposed to their many classmates — none of whom will be required to wear masks, which are only mandatory for Manitoba students in Grade 4 and up.

Although the province isn't making remote learning available to healthy students like his kids — full-time online learning is only permitted for immunocompromised students, not their family members — Mercado says he's planning to keep his kids at home for the first two weeks of the school year.

"I would rather go to jail than have my kid get sick."

Family ties behind COVID-19 worries

His concerns over a mass return to in-person learning are being felt by many Filipinos. He reasoned it may have to do with strong family ties, which make big family gatherings a staple of everyday life. 

"Our culture, it's like family. It's always family first," Mercado said. "We have this attitude that no one can prevent us from looking after our families."

Community organizer Leila Castro said the topic of the return to school has been a big talker on a 46,000-person Facebook group for Filipinos in Manitoba.

A poll question in the group asked people how they felt about school returning on Sept. 8, and the vast majority of people who replied — nearly 1,000 people — were strongly opposed.

Facebook polls aren't indicative of a community as a whole, but it suggests the worry is widespread. 

"Being immigrants here, they see two pictures of the pandemic," Castro said.

"One is, of course, what they see in the province where they are in right now, and the other one are the news and information that they receive from back home in the Philippines."

Castro said she's seen a number of social media posts from friends in the Philippines whose relatives have died of COVID-19.

These condolences give her pause, she said.

"We don't want to experience that here in the province, which is why our fear is there."

'We all have to go and live our lives'

In her ideal scenario, Manitoba would continue offering remote learning for families like hers, who want that option. In-person learning shifted online in March when the pandemic shuttered schools, but students in kindergarten to Grade 9 are expected to be in school full-time as of next week, while high school students will have a mix of in-class and remote learning.

Castro's 17-year-old son, Daniel, is leaning toward digital learning, especially as new COVID-19 cases climbed to the point where Manitoba had more cases more capita than anywhere else in Canada. 

Daniel Castro sports a face shield. His mother, Leila, says the shield is a precaution her son may take to school if the COVID-19 situation in Winnipeg worsens. (Ian Froese/CBC)

He misses his friends at Maples Collegiate, he said, but "it's for safety. If you want to get back to normal again, we got to go with the safety precautions."

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said Wednesday that teachers and many others believe the best learning environment for the majority of students is the classroom. He also said that teachers have expressed concern about the idea of juggling both in-class and remote teaching.

Allie Uy, a Filipino parent of two daughters, is advocating for a return to the classroom, even if she's fearful.

It "does bring some anxiety issues with parents, but I guess we need it — we need to find some normality in all of this."

She said her children are feeling cooped up indoors, away from their friends. She hopes schools take the necessary precautions to ensure safety.

As much as possible, she said, "we all have to go and live our lives."

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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