Demand still exists for virtual school

There is a wait-list for the virtual elementary school that Manitoba plans to close after claiming there was a significant drop in demand and in-person learning is superior for students’ mental health.

The Manitoba Remote Learning Support Centre, which was established in early 2021 to support students who could not attend traditional class because of health concerns in their households, recently announced it would wind down operations.

Families enrolled in the program have been quick to oppose the June closure and accuse the province of being ableist, and falsely claiming enrolment is declining.

“They’re not looking at the whole picture for some reason. There’s obviously a demand. I think they need to look at it again and really get a feel for what us parents are wanting because there was no consultation,” said mother Melanie Chewka. “The numbers speak for themselves.”

Chewka had registered her middle schooler because she wanted to limit her close contacts, but she said the high-quality instruction has proven so valuable for her daughter that the family wants to stick with it for numerous reasons.

Currently, 194 children attend the remote school, which offers a combination of real-time lessons and independent assignments, as well as extracurriculars, for students in Grades 1 through 8.

In Winnipeg alone, there are about 50 elementary schools that have fewer than 200 students.

Provincial officials have indicated the virtual school’s enrolment has dropped greatly since it peaked at 1,050 in 2021, but some of the decline can be attributed to the end of its kindergarten and French immersion courses.

Minutes from a recent parent meeting indicate six out of eight classes, all of which are capped at 25, have reached capacity or are a single addition away from the ceiling. Ten pupils are currently on standby, with demand evenly split between Grade 7 and 8 seats, per the report.

The minutes also note daily attendance rates ranged from 95 to 98 per cent overall between Feb. 13 and 17.

Mother Sara Corley said e-learning options allowed her children, all three of whom have autism, to study and socialize at home in a safe environment.

“(The school closure) infringes on some of our human rights — not only the right to education, but especially for disabled kids, the right to reasonable accommodation,” Corley said, adding she is overwhelmed by the prospect of supporting her 12-year-old’s return to in-person learning because he struggles with transitions and relationship building.

As far as father Jared Bauereiss is concerned, the pandemic pilot proved to be successful for numerous reasons, in addition to the protection it offered at-risk families.

The father of three said the model benefits students by directly engaging parents in their education, shielding them from bullying, and in rural and remote areas, scrapping lengthy commutes.

“If Manitoba Health has been using Telehealth for years as an option to decrease the barriers of geography for rural and remote residents, should the equivalent with Manitoba education be taken away?” added Bauereiss, who lives in Inglis, 375 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

Education Minister Wayne Ewasko said the province is focused on updating its e-learning options for high schoolers, although he indicated a future launch of a permanent virtual elementary school is not off the table.

“It was always anticipated that the (remote-learning) students would be returning to their school divisions and their school communities,” Ewasko said Thursday.

The minister, a former teacher, said schools have long worked with families on adaptive education plans, including health-care plans, and these resources will be available when students transition to in-person instruction in the fall.

The education department will collect feedback from families to determine the next steps for remote learning across the province, Ewasko said.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press