School daze

·3 min read

Thousands of families in the Manitoba capital have received the dreaded letter — stamped with a Winnipeg Regional Health Authority logo in the top left-hand corner — since Sept. 8.

“Dear parent/guardian of students at (X) school, Manitoba public health officials advised (X) school today of a confirmed case of COVID-19,” states the template Dr. Heejune Chang, medical officer of health for the region, is required to sign.

Owing to public-health concerns about privacy and stigma, the notices are vague. They include exposure dates and suggestions to self-monitor for symptoms — just enough information to raise pulses and make parents question their back-to-school choice for 2020-21.

“There’s no good decisions. There’s just various levels of bad decisions,” mother Luanne Karn said about decision-making during the pandemic.

Two months into the school-year, the Milne-Karns, Parenteaus and Blum-Paynes have each received at least one exposure letter; even if their child isn’t attending school on a daily basis, the three families all remain connected to their school communities, in the hopes of a return to in-class normalcy next fall.

In no particular order, the virus has visited Ecole Laura Secord (Anna Milne-Karn’s school), Isaac Brock School (Carter Parenteau’s school), the University of Winnipeg Collegiate (Josiah Parenteau’s school) and Ecole Sacré-Coeur (Emby Blum-Payne’s school).

After Grade 12 student Josiah Parenteau learned Oct. 21 of an exposure in his cohort at the U of W Collegiate, he opted to stay home the next day. The Winnipeg teenager has been doing both in-class and online learning this fall.

“It’s going pretty well,” he said about his senior year, exposure disruption aside. “But I don’t love chemistry.”

Upwards of 270 schools in Manitoba in total, approximately two-thirds of which are in Winnipeg, have recorded a COVID-19 exposure, to date. That’s according to an anonymous parent’s public spreadsheet on the subject, which pulls data from government updates, family submissions and news articles.

Given the rapidly rising virus caseload and related contact-tracing backlog, both the crowd-sourced spreadsheet and school administrators have increasingly been alerting families about COVID-19 exposures before public-health officials can.

Since Sept. 8, Winnipeg’s COVID-19 situation has deteriorated from a caution level (yellow) to a restricted phase (orange) to critical (red).

Schools have been downgraded from yellow to orange, which has broadened remote learning opportunities for interested families and put more of an emphasis on two metres of physical distancing in classrooms, but the province’s top doctor says there is limited transmission in schools.

“In part, we are making these sacrifices and changes so schools and child-care centres can stay safe and stay open,” chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin announced Nov. 10, after he prescribed new lockdown-like measures amid the second wave of COVID-19 in Manitoba.

Teachers, parents and students alike are facing the stresses of new restrictions inside and outside schools.

The Milne-Karns experienced a recent COVID-19 scare after a school exposure. The Parenteaus have temporarily shrunk their youngest child’s home-school bubble and group land-based learning with his cousins. And the Blum-Paynes are navigating their only daughter’s emotions while the outgoing third grader’s interactions with classmates are limited to a computer screen.

“We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘Is it worth it?’ because (officials) keep saying there isn’t a lot of transmission in the school,” father Andy Blum said.

No matter the families’ situations — be it back-to-school, home-school or remote school, the pandemic has prompted parents to pay closer attention to their children’s learning than ever before.

“My expectations about both my kids are really high. I expect them to do their work,” said mother Anna Parenteau.

But now, as a 24-7 teacher, she says she sees first-hand when her boys are tired, hungry or simply having a tough time during the school day.

The pandemic, she said, has made her more patient.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press