Class plans hinge on health rules

·3 min read

Empty classrooms will be dusted and COVID-19 signs and arrows adjusted over the summer when school buildings are closed to the public.

While the hallway chatter has ended, planning for the 2021-22 academic year is underway, ahead of a meeting scheduled between provincial officials and education leaders in mid-August to confirm a back-to-school scenario.

“Public health measures in schools will continue to mirror public health protocols and restrictions in the broader community. In the event that a full reopening is not possible, schools must be ready to plan for the caution (yellow) response level,” wrote Dana Rudy, deputy minister of education, in a recent letter sent to superintendents and independent school principals about fall planning.

In the June 17 memo, Rudy said vaccine uptake is key to reopening safely and the immunization of students aged 12 and up in the coming months may allow for “less restrictive” measures after Labour Day, which could include ensuring high schoolers are in class full time.

Manitoba’s goal is to have 80 per cent of all residents aged 12 and up receive their first jab of COVID-19 vaccine and more than 75 per cent of that population fully immunized against the virus by Sept. 6.

All services, facilities and businesses are expected to reopen — “with limited restrictions in some cases” — if Manitoba achieves those milestones.

In preparation for back-to-school, leaders in Manitoba’s largest school board will review plans for all the coloured levels on the pandemic response system: limited risk (code green), caution (code yellow), restricted (code orange), and critical (code red).

“Over the summer, there will be a lot of cleaning being done and some of our lines, arrows, posters need to be cleaned or replaced,” added Radean Carter, spokeswoman for the Winnipeg School Division.

Based on the projected trajectory of the pandemic and vaccine rollout, senior administration in the Louis Riel School Division anticipate social distancing and masking will remain requirements in early September.

“We are planning for caution (yellow) in schools and are hopeful that we will be able to move into limited risk (green) at some point during the 2021-22 school year,” said superintendent Christian Michalik, in a statement Thursday.

Schools started in the caution phase last fall. The basic guidelines include physical distancing “to the fullest extent possible,” by using one-way hallways and staggering exit times, and requiring masks when distancing cannot be maintained.

One of few things already confirmed for 2021-22 is that the Manitoba Remote Learning Support Centre will continue to serve students who are medically advised not to return to class. A total of 1,050 students accessed the centre in 2021; next year, the hub will have capacity for up to 1,000.

It remains to be seen whether Manitoba will require school employees to be vaccinated, although a provincial spokesperson indicated Thursday there are no current considerations to require immunization as a condition of employment in any sector.

Parents, especially those who have children under 12, may feel more secure about their children’s safety if there is assurance teachers are fully protected against the virus, said Arthur Schafer, a bioethicist at the University of Manitoba. “Whether it’s reasonable to have that as a work requirement, to say, ‘You can’t do your job, we won’t let you in the school unless you’re vaccinated,’ I think that’s a judgment call,” said Schafer.

He added such a mandate should only be put in place if there is no other way to provide a similar level of protection through means that don’t restrict liberties — for instance, by requiring non-immunized staff to wear masks and take rapid COVID-19 tests daily before work.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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