Shut down all public schools in Winnipeg, teachers' union says

The Manitoba Teachers' Society is calling on the provincial government to declare code red for all public schools in Winnipeg and move them to remote learning.

Manitoba Teachers' Society wants remote learning to start May 4 and continue until 3rd COVID-19 wave slows

David Chan says he worries about catching COVID-19 every time he takes his siblings to school. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The union representing Manitoba teachers wants the provincial government to move all public schools in Winnipeg to remote learning. 

Cases of more contagious coronavirus variants are rising and affecting younger Manitobans, Manitoba Teachers' Society president James Bedford said Thursday.

"I've spoken to more members who are actually ill with COVID at the moment than at any other point during the year," he said.

"We're now at the point where we feel the only way that we can maintain that degree of safety that's necessary and ensure some continuity in education is to go through this so-called circuit-breaker shutdown."

Winnipegger David Chan also says he'd like to see students learning from home. He worries every time he picks up his younger siblings from school.

"It concerns me. I know there is social distancing but it is very hard to avoid when everyone is going in all at the same time," he said.

Chan's entire family has already had to isolate once, after his little brother was exposed to the coronavirus.

Bedford said schools should move to the critical, or red, level of the province's pandemic response system, to allow time for vaccines and other public health measures to take effect against the pandemic's third wave.

Although the province overall is already at the critical response level, schools are operating under orange level, or restricted, protocols.

"We recognize that there's a desire to keep public schools open. The best learning takes place when students and teachers are together," said Bedford. 

Shut down all public schools in Winnipeg, teachers' union says

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Featured VideoThe union representing Manitoba teachers wants the provincial government to move all public schools in Winnipeg to remote learning.

"But safety always has to be our priority, and we feel the province has lost its opportunity with respect to priority vaccination."

Even if all teachers were vaccinated today, it would be mid- to late May before the shots became effective, he said.

The union wants the mass move to remote learning begin May 4, giving teachers a few days to shift from the classroom to online platforms, and for families to make child-care and other arrangements.

On Thursday, Premier Brian Pallister announced that Manitoba and North Dakota have expanded a vaccination partnership to now allow the province's teachers and other education workers to cross the border for COVID-19 vaccinations.

The details on how that will work will be revealed early next week, he said.

Reporting can't keep up: union

When asked about moving schools to remote learning, Pallister would not commit to the idea.

"The best thing is not to have to close the schools down," he said, adding the province is instead working "to get additional vaccines for teachers and people who work in the schools."

Teacher Lauren Hope slammed the province's plan.

"It's absolutely frustrating to watch the rhetoric continue around the line that schools are safe, this constant denial of airborne transmission with COVID, and a very weak and slow vaccine rollout to those who need it most," she said.

"We know that COVID is in schools, if it is in the community."

Nearly two-thirds of schools in Manitoba have had at least one case. The latest data published by the province shows there are 416 cases in Manitoba schools, most of those in Winnipeg, with 171 related to variants of concern.

But that information is two weeks old, and the teachers' union says that's part of the problem.

"We know through the observances that we're doing that it's simply not keeping up with reported cases," said Bedford.

"I've heard stories of letters going out to parents that talk about exposures in schools that were two weeks previous to when the letter was received."

Epidemiologist Cynthia Carr says while she understands the fear that parents and teachers might have, schools remain relatively safe environments because of the strict health protocols staff and students must follow.

"That's a safer setting than, you know, kids being perhaps at home, getting together with others. That's where the risk situation is compared to the school," she said.

The Harvard Schools for Health research team, which studies how to make school buildings safer, has recommended that schools should shut down when average daily case counts reach 25 cases per 100,000 residents, Carr said. 

"We're now down at about 19 cases a day per 100,000 residents, putting us in what they would describe as the orange zone."

Case numbers were higher in Manitoba in November and December, when schools remained open, she said.

2 more schools go remote

Two more Winnipeg schools are going into remote learning for at least two weeks.

The Pembina Trails School Division says St. Avila and South Pointe schools will begin online learning on Monday. Classroom instruction will be open to children with additional needs and children of critical services workers.

In a statement sent to CBC News, the division said it hopes students will be able to return to classes by May 17.

École South Pointe will switch to online learning as of Monday, for at least two weeks. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

The decision comes after Marie-Anne Gaboury school in the city's Louis Riel School Division announced April 24 that it was going into remote learning for two weeks, starting this week, because of COVID-19 cases.

At least four other schools in the province have also recently moved to remote learning due to the pandemic's third wave.

According to the province's map of school-aged cases and school staff cases, South Pointe reported three COVID-19 case in the two weeks prior to April 26, including one case that was a variant of concern.

The school on Kirkbridge Drive has almost 1,000 kindergarten to Grade 8 students.

St. Avila, with more than 300 kindergarten to Grade 6 students, reported two COVID-19 cases with no variants in the same time span.

St. Avila school reported two COVID-19 cases in the two weeks before April 26. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Asked why the division didn't immediately start home learning, Pembina Trails superintendent Ted Fransen said the delay was "out of a regard for our families needing a bit of time to make adjustments in their schedules to accommodate a rather significant change to their routine."

While the return date could change, Fransen is hopeful it doesn't. Remote learning is not the way he wants the school year to finish.

"It is our fundamental belief that the best place for our students is in class, safety distanced, being taught by a qualified teacher. We want our students back ASAP," he said, adding that a two-week period is the typical duration of self-isolation that public health uses.

"We decided to follow it."


With files from Meaghan Ketcheson, Marina Von Stackelberg and Caitlyn Gowriluk