Teachers, parents rally to demand province take more action on safe return to school

About 100 concerned parents and teachers gathered at the steps of the Manitoba legislative building Thursday evening to demand a safe return to school this fall.

Safe September MB wants physical distancing, remote learning option

A group of concerned parents and teachers marched from the Manitoba legislative grounds to Vimy Ridge Park Thursday evening. The group Safe September MB is calling on the province to bring in more safety measures for students and staff when they return to school. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

About 100 concerned parents and teachers gathered at the steps of the Manitoba legislative building Thursday evening to demand a safe return to school this fall.

"We stood on the steps of the legislature, and we asked those people who are making decisions for our children to make better decisions," said Lauren Hope, one of the organizers behind Safe September MB, which hosted the event.

The advocacy group has started a petition, demanding that the province do more to ensure physical distancing in classrooms, offer paid sick leave for teachers and substitutes, and to provide the option of remote learning for families who want to keep their kids at home.

"Two metres for every student, not just some students, and not just when they can, all the time, we know that keeps students safe," said Hope.

"We want teachers to be protected too, so teachers who need to work in a virtual classroom, give them a virtual classroom."

A similar rally was also held in Brandon earlier in the afternoon. People who attended the rallies were asked to wear masks and keep physical distance between families.

After several speakers addressed the crowd in Winnipeg, the group marched down Broadway to Vimy Ridge Park where there were more speakers.

Reduce class sizes, group says

Parent Krystal Payne was at the rally and is part of Safe September MB. She said the event was about gaining visibility in the community, and keeping momentum for the group.

"We're seeing some movement, we're seeing more funding, we have seen things like masks being recommended for schools and we want to see more movement," she said.

Teacher Charlene Sacher, left, says she's worried about her colleagues who may not have enough sick leave benefits should they get sick or need time off to self-isolate. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Payne said the issue of physical distancing is especially important to her.

"It's so important because that's the recommendation that we have in other places and the message is very contradictory especially for children, that if we're out somewhere else we need to stay two metres away from people but in schools we can go closer," Payne said.

Charlene Sacher, who teaches grades 1 and 2, said the division she works in is progressive and has ensured kids will have space, but that's not the case for all schools and all teachers.

"Right now my classroom is with 15 students, but then when we've measured that out there's no physical space for me to stand and instruct," she said.

About 100 people attended the rally at the legislature Thursday. Rally-goers were asked to wear masks and to keep at least two metres distance from people not in their household. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Having enough room to spread kids out isn't her only concern.

"I'm really concerned though also as a parent just in terms of kids coming back and spreading it throughout the household. I'm also concerned in terms of sick leave and things like that, especially for newer teachers," said Sacher.

The group wants to make sure teachers and substitutes are not only compensated for sick leave, but that there is enough staff to cover them if they need to be quarantined or take a few days off to get tested.

Remote learning option needed

Xiaohan Ma was at the rally with her nine-year-old daughter Sophia. She said she wanted to teach her daughter to stand up for her rights, in this case her right to an education that she can access safely from home.

Ma supports the group's calls for online learning to be available for any families who want it, which would free up space in classrooms to allow for distancing.

"If we have one more option, so some children can stay home to learn online, it can satisfy all of the parents," said Ma.

Xiaohan Ma, left, and her daughter Sophia Huang, right, want to see a remote learning option added so that some students can learn from home. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Teachers and organizers at the rally also wanted to make it clear that allowing parents to home-school their kids is not the same as providing public education online. 

"To educate the public about what it means when they choose home-schooling, that they are choosing to defund the public school system and that has huge consequences down the line," said Hope.

The petition now has more than 16,000 signatures, but the group says they're not done. They plan to have more events in the coming weeks.