Steinbach school moves to remote learning for a day after restriction protest outside its doors

A school in the southern Manitoba school division is moving to remote learning on Friday after a protest against pandemic restrictions in front of the building resulted in a hold-and-secure situation on Thursday.

Incident put Steinbach Regional Secondary School into hold-and-secure situation

The protest began Thursday morning when some students at Steinbach Regional Secondary School walked out of class to call for an end to pandemic restrictions. (Ian Froese/CBC)

A school in the southern Manitoba school division is moving to remote learning on Friday after a protest against pandemic restrictions in front of the building resulted in a hold-and-secure situation on Thursday.

Steinbach Regional Secondary School posted on its website at 11:30 a.m. that because of a protest outside the building, the school was under a hold and secure, which means exterior doors are locked and students stay in their classes with their teachers.

Exterior doors were being monitored by staff and RCMP are at the school, the post said.

The school said the hold-and-secure measure would remain in place until the end of the day to ensure student safety.

Parents who wanted to get their children from the school were asked to park in the bus loop at the back of the school "as the front of the school is congested."

The protest began when some students walked out of class Thursday morning and were joined by adults showing their support. 

Steinbach Regional Secondary School was put in a hold and secure Thursday due to a protest outside the building against pandemic restrictions. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Some protesters were on school property and tried to enter the building, which created an unsafe environment for students and staff and disrupted in-class learning, said an email from Shelley Amos, the interim superintendent and CEO of Hanover School Division. 

The one-day remote learning will "provide an opportunity for our staff to assess the impact of today's event, connect virtually with our students, and plan to ensure everyone is prepared for a safe return." she said.

Students with special needs are welcome to attend school Friday for in-person learning, and buses will pick up these students as usual.

Everyone was sort of scared. It was like, 'Why is this happening, this is ridiculous.'- Garrett Hurst, Grade 11 student

"We respect the right to protest but urge all protesters to be respectful, peaceful, and remain off school property during demonstrations," she said. 

The Garden Valley School Division issued a statement of its own Thursday after reports that there were protesters at the division office earlier this week.

Interim Superintendent Janice Krahn reiterated that restrictions, including mandatory mask use, are put in place by the province.

"Contrary to social media reports, we do not have the authority to change the mandates," she said. "Public health orders and direction from Manitoba Education is binding on school boards, school divisions and schools."

"Locally, school staff are working hard with students and families to support children with the parameters provided."

'Huge crowds of people'

Garrett Hurst, who is in Grade 11 at the Steinbach school, said by 9 a.m., he saw an "absurdly crowded" scene outside the building.

"People not wearing masks, a bunch of people holding signs saying 'Mandate freedom,' stuff like that," Hurst said. 

"I saw a whole bunch of trucks and cars and huge crowds of people with Canadian flags and signs advocating for the end of restrictions and mandates."

Protesters gather outside Steinbach Regional Secondary School Thursday morning in a demonstration that prompted school administrators to lock the building. (Submitted by Garrett Hurst)

Hurst said students then heard through the intercom about the protest.

"Everyone was sort of scared. It was like, 'Why is this happening, this is ridiculous,'" Hurst said, adding some maskless students were protesting inside the school and also holding signs.

Some of the protesters at the school stood on a flatbed trailer, waving signs and encouraging drivers to honk to show their support. 

'We all have a freedom': protester

Carrying a sign saying "Mandate Freedom," Neil Krahn said he decided to participate in the protest because he thinks people should have a choice about whether to wear masks or get vaccinated against COVID-19.

"It is fine if you want to wear it — that is your choice. If you want to go get your vaccine, that is your choice. As a Canadian … we all have a freedom," he said. 

"It doesn't matter if you want to do it or you don't want to do it, we should all accept each other."

He added that the pandemic restrictions have had a detrimental impact on his small business. 

Dani Hiebert says restrictions also had a negative impact on her livelihood.

She was a security guard at the school for 2½ years when she was put on unpaid leave because she chose not to reveal her COVID-19 vaccination status to her employer, the Hanover School Division, nor adhere to testing three times a week.

"That is for my personal information. Only my doctor knows that, but nobody else needs to know," Hiebert said. "That is discrimination.

"I'm a healthy person. I've got natural immunity. I feel great. I do not need to be tested," she added. 

She was later fired.

A group of students from the school held up signs in support of Hiebert. She didn't know there would be specific support for her amid the protesters until the last minute.

Former Steinbach Regional Secondary School security Dani Hiebert (standing second from right) joined in with protesters Thursday. She was fired for not revealing her COVID-19 vaccination status and declining to be tested three times a week. (Ian Froese/CBC)

"It means the world. They are my kids. They always will be," she said. "They love me and I love them."

Hiebert, who admitted to being in contact with some students since her firing, says it's good for the kids to say how they really feel with everything that's transpired the past two years.

"It touches my heart. It makes me happy. And it's good for the kids," she said of the protest. "They've been bottling this up this whole time and now there's some closure with that."

The protest at the school happened as semi-trailer trucks, farm equipment and other vehicles began a blockade at the Canada-U.S. border crossing at Emerson, Man., Thursday.

That demonstration is part of a series of similar protests in cities and at border crossings in recent weeks.

A spokesperson for protesters near the Manitoba Legislature grounds said they are not affiliated with the protests in Steinbach or Emerson. 

In a news conference Thursday, Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen — who is also the MLA for Steinbach — said he understands the last two years have been difficult for students, and said he respected their right to protest.

But he said for adults, a school isn't an appropriate place for a demonstration. 

"I think it's important to remember that schools, hospitals — there are certain places that really aren't the appropriate places for those demonstrations and I think we have to be mindful of those places," Goertzen said.

"There are unique things happening there, there are more vulnerable populations sometimes.... Please just try to take some perspective of other people and what some of your actions are doing."

Protesters lined the street outside Steinbach Regional Secondary School on Thursday. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Premier Heather Stefanson and Education and Early Childhood Learning Minister Wayne Ewasko issued a joint statement after Goertzen met with the press, highlighting a similar message.

"We ask the protesters to respect that they are endangering children with their actions today. We hear their concerns, but the method in which they are expressing them is dangerous," the statement says.

"COVID-19 has turned our world upside down, especially for students. One of the biggest lessons we have learned is that in-person learning is best for children and youth, and students get so much more than education at school. School should be a place where students learn, develop, grow and explore, not one where they feel unsafe."

Speaking in the House of Commons earlier on Thursday, interim federal Conservative Leader Candice Bergen, who is the member of Parliament for the southern Manitoba riding of Portage-Lisgar, called on the people participating in the various convoys and border blockades to end the demonstrations.