No recess? Manitoba schools planning for new reality in fall, if they're even able to reopen

Getting students back into classrooms could mean no recess, no phys ed, no gathering in hallways, classes being dismissed at different times and staggered lunch breaks, says the head of the Manitoba School Boards Association.

'If we've learned anything, it's that anything is possible' during pandemic: school boards association head

The hallways in Manitoba schools have been empty since March 23 and could continue to be that way come fall. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Nothing is off the table when it comes to how classrooms will look in the fall — if they're even open to students by that point, say Manitoba school officials.

"I think it's a guarantee that whether or not we resume classes in September … they will be different," said Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association.

"We need to be able to provide a classroom setting that allows for physical distancing and meets the guidelines from public health, not just in the classroom but in the hallways. How do students move from class to class?"

That could mean no recess, no phys ed, no gathering in hallways, classes being dismissed at different times and staggered lunch breaks.

"Those are things we've seen coming out of other jurisdictions and those are things we are considering," Campbell said, adding that everything is being discussed.

"Sadly, that flies in the face of everything we want kids to experience in school. So that social, emotional impact is a significant piece of the conversation we're having."

Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association, said all sorts of contingency plans are being examined for how schooling will look in the fall. (Nelly Gonzalez/CBC)

Education officials need to consider how students will feel being regimented in that way, he said. To that end, school boards and superintendents have been touching base with government and health officials several times each week.

They've been watching other jurisdictions in Canada and even Europe, assessing their plans and how they could be applied or tweaked for Manitoba.

Another possible scenario is a sort of hybrid model that would see students attending class every second day, with online learning from home on the other days, Campbell said. That could also be adapted to individual classrooms, so half the class is at school while the other half is at home.

"Those are all variables that are being considered and worked on now," he said, noting transportation of students on buses is also under review.

"If we've learned anything, it's that anything is possible in this environment and we will do our absolute level best."

Classes were initially suspended in Manitoba on March 23, one week before the scheduled spring break was to start. The pause was set to last until April 13, one week after spring break. But on March 31, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen cancelled in-school learning indefinitely to prevent spread of COVID-19.

"We would love to be able to provide clarity and guidance to our communities around what we expect," Campbell said, but the COVID-19 situation is fluid and that makes things difficult to forecast. Plans might not be firm until August, he said.

As soon as concrete plans begin to take shape, families will be notified, he said.

Online learning challenges

Since in-classroom instruction was halted, online-based learning has continued from home. But that's met with mixed success.

"Some students are thriving in the new online model and there are other families who are doing their best but struggling with scheduling realities and with child care realities and with a whole bunch of other stresses," Campbell said.

Meanwhile, socioeconomic realities, poverty, and mental and physical health limitations make learning at home impossible for some.

"There are families with whom schools have not been able to make any contact … since classroom learning ended in March," Campbell said. 

That is something that needs to be addressed if classroom instruction can't resume in the fall, he said.

"We will allocate resources as best we can to make sure each school can help the families, locally, that need help. And that level of help will look different for every family," he said. "That is our objective."

There is also the challenge some families face of having no or inadequate internet access, due to financial barriers or poor infrastructure in rural areas.

"We need to understand how to make online learning something that is universally accessible to everyone," Campbell said. "They'll need access in order to be part of online learning that could be a longer-term reality."

On Thursday, board chairs and other education stakeholders will meet online with Manitoba Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin to further discuss expectations around reopening schools. That includes the matter of personal protective equipment for staff.

"We will look to [Roussin] as to what resumption of classes will look like, when it will happen and how it will be executed," Campbell said. But he doesn't expect any quick answers — that "isn't how this works," he said.

Even if schools are given the go-ahead to resume classes in the fall, some families who have been isolating for many months might not feel comfortable with their kids being back in that setting.

"That will need to be part of how public schools adapt to this new reality," Campbell said.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Nelly Gonzalez