Schools struggle to add distance, adjust to stricter rules

·4 min read

As schools scramble to comply with code orange, teachers are being reassigned to new roles and classrooms in an effort to space students out by two metres — but it’s a feat some say is impossible, no matter how much furniture is moved around in their buildings.

New public health restrictions, which come into effect on Monday, require schools in Manitoba’s capital and northern region to further distance students, limit extracurricular activities if protocols cannot be met, cancel field trips and pause indoor choir and the use of wind instruments.

Moments after Dr. Brent Roussin made the announcement, principal Chris Wigglesworth and her colleagues at Forest Park School started brainstorming ways to free up space for the golden two-metre rule.

“I don’t think (it’s doable), to be honest, but we’re just going to make the distance as big as we can. It will definitely be better than what it was before,” said Wigglesworth, during an interview mid-reorganization at the K-5 school in Garden City on Friday afternoon.

She added the school will do whatever it can to keep kids learning in classrooms.

Twenty-four hours after Roussin’s news conference on Thursday, Wigglesworth was finalizing two new hires. Also part of the team’s code orange plan: ongoing outdoor phys-ed, moving all music instruction to the gymnasium, emptying the music room for a classroom teacher and converting an empty room in the school into another classroom.

Aside from the existing universal masking requirement for students in Grade 4 and up, school divisions across the province have taken different approaches to applying public health advice in their buildings. The latest announcement is no different.

In the Louis Riel School Division, superintendent Christian Michalik has said little will change, because schools have already been operating with a strict two-metre protocol.

At the same time, a slew of changes is expected in Pembina Trails School Division, from Grade 7 and 8 students moving to alternate-day models where two metres of distancing isn’t possible to the availability of remote learning for all K-6 students as of Nov. 2.

“The problem is there’s inconsistent messaging coming from the top, and then it filters down so that nobody really knows what to do,” said one educational assistant in Winnipeg, who spoke to the Free Press on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal at work.

“It’s hard to be living on such a perilous quicksand.”

The educational assistant said she’d like politicians to visit schools to see what’s really going on, because between the 500 students in her cohorts (she works in two schools), she said there is little room for physical distancing, students are sharing each others’ supplies and masks aren’t being worn properly.

While many educators have called out Manitoba public health’s vague wording about the new restrictions, members of the Manitoba Music Educators’ Association said Friday they’re confused about why the province has been explicit about changes to their profession.

Association president Virginia Helmer said she was both angry and surprised the province took such a “strong position” about eliminating indoor choir and wind instruments, when educators have spent the last six weeks fine-tuning safe practices.

Among the new 2020-21 changes, music teachers have introduced masks with slits, air purifiers, bell covers and face shields into their classrooms.

Helmer noted the music adjustments are the only curricular changes expected Monday. “We’d like more information about the rationale,” she said.

One affected band teacher said educators want more control, autonomy and to be trusted that they know how to do their jobs safely.

The teacher, who asked not to be named, was told at 1 p.m. Friday she is being moved to a new school as of Monday to become a classroom teacher in a grade she has never taught. It’s because of code orange.

“Students need boundaries and stability as children. It’s hard to put on a brave face as a teacher when you don’t know what’s going on either,” the teacher said.

Similarly, one middle years teacher in the Winnipeg region spent Friday — what was supposed to be a professional development day — moving desks, chairs and teaching materials to another room in her school. She has been temporarily booted to another room so a colleague can split their students between two rooms.

Speaking to the Free Press on the condition of anonymity, the teacher said the constant stress of teaching during a pandemic — made worse by the latest announcement — has forced her to consider resigning.

“The job was hard before,” she said, “but now I don’t even make supper, I don’t clean and I ignore my own kids.”

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press