Manitoba asks schools to create 3 plans for a September return

Manitoba's priority is to resume in-class schooling in September but there will be three return-to-school scenarios, depending on the COVID-19 situation in fall.

Final decision will be made by Aug. 1, taking into account health situation at the time

Schools in Manitoba will reopen at the beginning of September, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said on Twitter on Monday. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Manitoba aims to resume in-class schooling in September but has revealed three possible return-to-school scenarios, depending on the COVID-19 situation in fall.

The province is currently hoping for a school year where classes are back but with some precautions. The final decision will be made by Aug. 1 and take into account the public health situation at the time, Manitoba's education minister announced Thursday.

The release now of the different back-to-school scenarios also gives families plenty of time to get ready, Kelvin Goertzen said.

"There are two months to prepare, so put into place a plan where your child can't go to school and you must go to work. Prepare for that [possibility] now."

Based on the current COVID-19 situation in Manitoba, Goertzen said he expects to have all classes back but with some precautions in place if case numbers remain low. 

The three scenarios include a full return to class, with a relaxing of physical-distancing measures; a return to school with distancing, which would prioritize in-class learning for kindergarten to Grade 8; or a limited reopening with online and some small-group in-person learning. 

Under the second scenario, if classrooms can't ensure two metres, the province is looking to maintain a one-metre space while establishing cohort groups that won't intermingle. That will assist with contact tracing and prevent a full school closure in the event of a positive case.

For bus transportation, the rule would be one child per seat, although kids from the same household would be allowed to sit together. 

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The province is asking school divisions to develop detailed reopening plans to be submitted to Manitoba Education based on the three scenarios.

"This framework will allow schools and school divisions to prepare plans that are flexible at the local level, yet consistent with those at other sites across the province," Goertzen said at a Thursday afternoon conference, held along with Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin.

Goertzen quietly announced earlier this week that students would return to class on Sept. 8. 

He used Twitter on Monday to announce that teachers and staff will be asked to return to schools on Sept. 2 and students will follow about a week later.

The priority for schools in September will be core subjects like math, sciences and English, Goertzen said Thursday. Music classes and phys ed will likely go ahead but will probably look different.

In some cases, schools that are having difficulty with spacing may repurpose gyms or libraries as classrooms.

Dr. Roussin said he understands how important music classes are, and he's monitoring current research and looking at ways to safely bring music back to schools.

Provisions will also be made for at-home learning should a sick or immunocompromised child have to stay home, or if anxiety or other personal issues make it difficult to attend the classroom.

"We might be all in the same storm, but we're not in the same boat," Goertzen said.

Framework considerations

Goertzen outlined key points school divisions should consider in making their plans, including:

  • Ensuring schools can respond and adapt to changing public health orders and guidance.
  • Making sure any necessary physical distancing requirements can be met.
  • Considering the use of cohorts in classrooms, on buses and during activities to limit exposure to COVID-19.
  • Planning with a focus on in-class learning and establishing priorities.
  • Looking at ways to accommodate specialty programming and extracurricular activities.
  • Considering how school transportation can be safely offered.
  • Looking at blended learning options that can be implemented quickly.
  • Making arrangements for students, teachers and staff who may be at higher risk of COVID-19.
  • Considering learning and assessment needs, as well as any educational gaps for students as a result of the pandemic.

All school divisions are required to ensure every school has plans that are accessible to parents and students. Funded independent schools will also be asked to submit plans and post them publicly.

"Public health officials expect the COVID-19 virus to be around for some time, and that's why schools need to develop plans for the fall," Roussin said.

That means continuing to practise physical distancing and hygiene like handwashing, and the need to "de-normalize being out in public when you're ill."

'Must be ready to adapt'

Regardless of which scenario is chosen to open the school year, things could change suddenly, Goertzen and Roussin said.

The report released by the province says school divisions will follow public health advice throughout the school year, and for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This means the K-12 system must be ready to adapt to changing public health conditions at any time," the document states.

It notes that uncertainty around COVID-19 may make some families reluctant to send their children back to in-class learning, so building confidence and mitigating risk will be key to full participation. 

Goertzen emphasized Thursday how well Manitoba is doing in terms of flattening the curve and "following good public health advice."

"Think of another place in Canada, or maybe North America, that you'd rather be living [while] dealing with COVID than Manitoba. I don't think there are many that immediately pop up," he said.

"We're doing well and we need to continue to trust those who are giving the advice."

Schools were closed in Manitoba on March 23 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but learning continued online.

Schools had a limited reopening in June. Staff returned and some students attended for things like end-of-year assessments and other physically distanced activities.

Seven Oaks School Division sent out a letter to parents on Tuesday outlining the steps they plan to take to minimize health risks once schools reopen. 

Those include limiting large gatherings like assemblies, staggering lunch and recess breaks, and keeping students in cohort groups as much as possible. 

A planning document posted on the Winnipeg School Division's website includes similar steps, but also says it is considering prohibiting visitors except in special circumstances.


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