Back to school… like the old days

·4 min read

Manitoba students can expect optional masking and a full range of academic and extracurricular activities when classes begin next week.

Virtual tutoring will be available to elementary-age pupils in need of extra support in the wake of countless COVID-19 interruptions in recent years.

“After 21/2 years of public-health restrictions and changes to the school experience, I am pleased to welcome all students and staff back to full-time, in-person learning,” Education Minister Wayne Ewasko announced at a news conference outside Jameswood Alternative School Tuesday.

Next Tuesday marks the first official day of the 2022-23 school year.

Ewasko said students can look forward to field trips, parents can look forward to watching their children compete in sports and participate in band recitals and education workers can once again look forward to engaged school communities.

The provincial government has earmarked more than $2 million in new funding for various remote learning, mental-health and research projects. Among them, the Manitoba Remote Learning Support Centre will start offering after-school tutoring for students in Grades 1 to 8.

Starting next week, schools will operate much like they did at the end of June. There will be no widespread limitations on parent or volunteer involvement in K-12 buildings. In addition to resuming annual in-person events and traditions, educators will simultaneously support student well-being and recovery learning.

Brian O’Leary, superintendent of the Seven Oaks School Division, said “it’s almost like schools went into overdrive” at the end of 2021-22 to make up for lost time, hosting concerts and typical graduation ceremonies.

“Kids have lost a lot in the last couple years, both in terms of social and emotional well-being and in terms of academic progress,” he said.

“I hope kids get to see their friends every day and that there’s full sports and concerts and productions and singing in the choir room, playing instruments in band and a whole lot less seat-work, and more projects, experiments, field trips — just a lot more of the things that kids love about school.”

O’Leary said schools will continue to be fully operational and there will be fewer plexiglass partitions in K-12 buildings this fall, but general public-health precautions that have become second nature since 2020 will persist.

Students, staff and visitors will be expected to stay at home when they are sick and encouraged to isolate for five days after testing positive for COVID-19. Upon request, school leaders will be supplying rapid-test kits and disposable medical masks. Leaders will monitor absenteeism and warn public health if they spot concerning trends, which could, in turn, prompt an alert or remote-learning stint.

Two years ago, Safe September MB launched as an advocacy campaign to increase funding for COVID-19 protocols in schools, strengthen overall health measures, and provide transparent case reporting. While the movement has since dwindled, some public school educators and parents remain concerned.

“We’re not post-pandemic yet. If we need to learn to live with COVID-19, we also need to have the information to protect ourselves as families and students and staff, and that’s a provincial responsibility,” said Luanne Karn, a former organizer with Safe September MB, who is also a public school parent, educator and trustee candidate in the upcoming municipal election.

Karn said she and her Grade 5 daughter will both be masking up this fall.

The Winnipeg mother said she is disappointed there have been few details released about ventilation upgrades. She wants to know if her daughter’s school has received money to upgrade its system, if it’s using a high-quality air filter, and whether CO2 levels will be monitored at the room-level when windows cannot be open during winter.

On Tuesday, the education minister spoke about $6.8 million in provincial dollars spent on school ventilation last year and mentioned $4.5 million in federal funding will go towards related infrastructure upgrades this year.

The new money will be spent on more than 350 ventilation projects across roughly 250 schools in the province, Ewasko said.

The Division scolaire franco-manitobaine has purchased portable air filter units and swapped all school-wide heating, ventilation and air conditioning filters with higher-quality models, according to superintendent Alain Laberge.

“There’s nothing wrong in being scared of COVID. There’s nothing wrong in being scared of being sick. At the same time, the message we are sending is: ‘we have to resume and we now have a better understanding of what to do and what not to do,’” Laberge said.

As Lilith Theule prepares for the new academic year, the incoming Grade 9 student’s biggest concern is making friends at a new school.

The 13-year-old said her mental health suffered significantly when she was isolated from friends and unable to mingle with peers at school because of the pandemic. While the teen said she enjoys doing independent work, her hope is there will be more opportunities for group activity and socialization this year.

“I want to have more of a balanced experience in high school,” she said.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press