Decision on back-to-school format on hold until August, says minister

·3 min read

Families will learn in August exactly what COVID-19-related classroom measures — if any — are going to be in place for back-to-school in 2021-22.

Manitoba’s education minister announced Thursday his hope is all students can return to school buildings full-time.

“Our goal is that all students will return to in-person classes full-time this September; however, we have asked school divisions to plan for various scenarios,” Education Minister Cliff Cullen said during an end-of-year news conference.

Cullen said a decision about the upcoming academic year will be made in consultation with public health officials.

For those who are unable to attend in-person classes for medical reasons, Manitoba’s remote learning support centre will continue to operate, Cullen said, noting $5 million has been earmarked for the hub’s ongoing operations. Other restrictions, if any are required, will be revealed before Labour Day.

The province previously announced $58 million is being set aside to support pandemic expenses, wellness initiatives, and recovery learning for next year.

Before taking questions at a media availability Thursday, the minister gave opening remarks about the challenges school staff, students and parents navigated this year and the resilience everyone involved in educating children showed.

He gave shout-outs to teachers who worked in pandemic hot spots to provide in-person learning to critical service worker students and members of the Class of 2021, who are graduating after a school year that was plagued by uncertainty.

“While difficult, there are certainly some positive lessons learned that can be carried forward. Many teachers embraced technology, the outdoors — and students were better for it,” Cullen said, adding Manitoba students were able to learn in school for most of the year.

“It was a full Team Manitoba effort that allowed this school year to be different but, at the same time, successful.”

Since Sept. 1, there have been 4,592 COVID-19 cases connected to schools in the province, with nearly 80 per cent involving students. The province declared a total of six school outbreaks during that time.

On the subject of the government’s controversial plans to overhaul public education, Cullen spoke Thursday about positive feedback during parent engagement sessions and hinted there will be more updates on related initiatives in the coming weeks.

He reiterated the importance of the public doing research on Bill 64 (Education Modernization Act) and the Better Education Starts Today strategy.

Critics of Bill 64 have raised questions about why the province is following through with plans to transform public education amid the chaos that is the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This summer needs to be about rest and restoration for people who have just completely given everything they can give to the students of this province,” said Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association.

“Unfortunately, so much of this summer is going to be dedicated to the ongoing fight against this legislation.”

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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