Following two erratic years of on-again, off-again school closures and restrictive protocols, the hallways and classrooms of our local schools have returned this fall to a feeling of pre-COVID normality.
This summer, the province released their back-to-school guidelines, taking a more relaxed tone.
“It is expected that COVID-19 will continue to be an ongoing presence in Manitoba communities as everyone returns to school this fall,” reads a statement from the provincial guidelines. “Thankfully, widespread vaccination, testing and treatment options, and continued vigilance and planning mean the threat of COVID-19 is considerably reduced compared to when schools closed in 2020.”
A School Division Embraces Change
Like most divisions, the Hanover School Division (HSD) was quick this summer to outline some more laidback measures for its facilities.
As of September 2022, wearing a mask became optional for staff and students. Restrictions on distancing and limiting class sizes were eliminated and administrative staff are no longer required to do contact tracing.
Because flu season is coming and COVID is still active in the province, teachers are expected to continue to encourage good hygiene among the students and provide hand sanitizer in classrooms.
“We still have a supply of masks and rapid antigen tests in our schools,” says Shelley Amos, superintendent and CEO of HSD. “We can distribute those to staff and to families who would like them.”
Sports, extracurricular activities, and large school gatherings are back in full swing.
For the most part, Amos says, school administrators will rely on parents to be the best judge of whether their child’s symptoms should keep them at home.
“If you’re really sick and lethargic, then you really shouldn’t be in the school—or in the workplace, for that matter,” Amos says.
The gauge to determine when parents should be contacted to pick up their child from school, she adds, will be much like it was prior to the pandemic.
“We will still monitor absences,” Amos says. “If we feel there’s some high absenteeism happening in a particular school, we may send notifications home to families just to make them aware. We have been asked as a division to notify Public Health if we see really high case [counts].”
Amos says that so far the majority of school staff in the division have opted to go mask-free and she’s heard no feedback from anyone who is not in favour of relaxing the rules.
Parents Weigh In
The Citizen reached out to local parents to learn how they are responding to these changes to pandemic policies. Virtually all of them reported a sense of relief, and even jubilation, at the idea of going back to a maskless environment for their kids.
“Children need germs in order to build a healthy immune system,” says one mom, Taylor. “Let them hug their friends, eat dirt, pick their noses, and breathe fresh air.”
The past two years, Taylor adds, has demonstrated that the COVID survival rate among children is especially high—so she, for one, has no concerns.
Another mom, Pamela, said her family chose to home-school for the most part over the last two years. It wasn’t so much about the restrictions, she says, as it was about protecting an extended family member with a degenerative lung disease.
“We have a vaccine and a high vaccination rate,” says Pamela. “At this point, the risk-to-benefit [ratio] favours a return to normal.”
Another local mom, who chooses to remain anonymous, also chose to home-school during the pandemic. For her, it did have everything to do with the imposed restrictions.
“We are so happy they get to return to normal,” she says. “We felt the restrictions and masks weren’t an environment we wanted them to be in. If they weren’t able to go to school and just be kids, it wasn’t something we wanted to participate in.”
Bouncing back and forth between in-school learning and remote learning, this parents adds, only strengthened her decision to home-school.
Dianne Daynes is a grandmother with two school-age grandchildren on the autism spectrum.
“[They were] exempt from wearing masks and were bullied continuously, even by the teachers and bus drivers,” says Daynes. “It’s a sad world when kids can’t be kids.”
Father Kris Friesen says he’s elated over the return to normal at his son’s elementary school. According to Friesen, his son went from being a generally happy, energetic child before COVID to a tired and reserved child during the years of pandemic restrictions.
Mom Gina says that her family is vaccinated, so she’s not too concerned about a return to normal. Still, the family practices vigilant preventative measures at home and hopes that the teachers will also implement hand-washing routines in school and encourage families to keep their sick kids at home.
Another mom, Jennifer, says she was on the fence about the rapid return to an unrestricted school environment. Still, her son is vaccinated, she says, and so are his friends, which puts her more at ease.
“I trust [my son] to make good decisions,” Jennifer says. “But not everybody does make good decisions and teachers are too busy to monitor things like hand-washing.”
Jennifer adds that her son had a cold the weekend after school began. He tested negative for COVID, but she kept him home on Monday anyway, just to be safe.
“On Tuesday, when he went to school, [basically completely] recovered, his friends insisted he wear a mask, so that made me feel hopeful about this generation,” she muses.
She’s less convinced that most adults will continue to be as vigilant.
“People were inconvenienced by the pandemic and now they’re tired of the inconvenience,” says Jennifer. “So everybody seems to have decided to sort of forget it exists.”
Mom Stacy says that it’s nice to see everyone’s smiling faces again, but she would willingly go back to using a mask if it meant keeping herself and everyone else safe. There are a couple of children in her daughter’s classroom, she says, who continue to use a mask.
“My daughter was nervous because it was her first year of junior high school,” says Stacy, “but after the first two days all her anxiety is gone and she’s very excited.”
Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen