Petition calling for changes to Manitoba's back-to-school plan garners 17,500 signatures

Members of Safe September MB hand-delivered a petition signed by 17,500 Manitobans to Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen on Thursday afternoon.

Parent-teacher advocacy group hand-delivers it to Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen

Members of advocacy group Safe September Manitoba delivered a petition signed 17,500 times to Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen on Thursday. (Radio-Canada)

An advocacy group that isn't satisfied with the province's back-to-school plan hand-delivered a petition signed by 17,500 Manitobans to the Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen on Thursday afternoon.

Safe September MB, a coalition of teachers and parents who want a safe return to school during the pandemic, had been looking for signatures since mid-August.

The petition has eight demands, including ensuring physical distancing in classrooms, offering paid sick leave to teachers and substitutes, and providing an option for remote learning for families who want to keep their kids home. It is also asking the province to fund those initiatives by directing millions in federal money — earmarked for education — and spending any savings the province made during the 2019-2020 academic year.

"If you save the money during a pandemic, it's pandemic profits, I call it. You don't want to profit off a pandemic, you want to put as much as you can to support the long-term of these families, parents, children, educators," said Luanne Karn, a teacher in Winnipeg with 15 years of experience.

"The province has told other employers to be flexible when their employees are sick. But as an employer, they have not come up with any strategies to support [education assistants], clerical staff. Are they going to use up their [sick days] they get every year in quarantine?"

A mask mandate is also on the petition, but that was implemented while Safe September MB sought signatures. So Karn knows it is possible to implement some of the demands, she said.

She also pointed to the Louis Riel School Division, which has used savings to measure its classrooms and ensure there are two metres between students. Karn is unaware of any other school divisions which have done the same.

All school divisions will have to access a total of $100 million in Safe Schools funding, a spokesperson for Goertzen told CBC News in an email, after the petition was delivered.

There are eight demands in the petition, including paid sick leave for teachers who have to take time off to isolate, developing plans for remote learning and ensuring physical distancing in schools. (Radio-Canada)

"Our government believes that the health and safety of Manitoba students is the highest priority as we prepare for a return to school," the spokesperson said. "[Public health] protocols and plans have been put in place and school staff have returned to school prior to students to ensure plans are properly implemented."

The province will continue working with school divisions and individual schools to make sure plans are working and everyone is safe, the spokesperson added.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont helped direct members of the advocacy group through the legislature on Thursday. He later told CBC News that, despite the fact that school starts next Tuesday, there is still time for changes in the back-to-school plan.

"There is always time. It's better to wait a bit and ensure that [the plan] works well, than to work too fast and make mistakes now," Lamont said in French.

"There is time to make these investments. We think it makes good sense to leave it a few days, a week to prepare and ensure that everyone can return to school in good health, or do remote learning."

With files from Sean Kavanagh and Mohamed-Amin Kehel