The largest school board and teachers’ union in Manitoba are calling on the provincial government to start the new year in remote learning for all but the elementary children of essential workers and students deemed at risk of disengagement or dropping out.
In a letter dated Dec. 30, the chairwoman of the Winnipeg School Division wrote to both the premier and ministers in charge of education and health to request they immediately take action to address spiking COVID-19 cases.
The president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society also confirmed Friday he has asked officials to downgrade classrooms currently in caution (Code Yellow) to critical (Code Red) on the pandemic response system.
"If it’s out of control in the community, it’ll be out of control in the schools. The schools aren’t islands," Betty Edel, who oversees the WSD board, told the Free Press.
Edel said her board, which has a student population of more than 30,000 in central Winnipeg, wants Manitoba to revisit its current back-to-school plan for 2022 so in-person learning can resume later in the new year.
Students are currently anticipated to return to classrooms on Jan. 10. Staff are expected back for professional development and preparation work on Jan. 6 — the original new year start date, which was postponed to "buy time" for public health officials to assess the Omicron variant in the local context.
On New Year’s Eve, the province announced new records for both daily case counts and the five-day test positivity rate in Manitoba: 1,494 and 30.7 per cent, respectively. The total number of school-related cases identified in Manitoba since Labour Day — 2,967 — has also jumped by nearly 600 since Dec. 23, per the province’s COVID-19 school dashboard.
"Current strategies are no longer effective to manage this crisis for Manitobans," Edel wrote in her recent letter to provincial officials.
The WSD trustees want to see a temporary shuffle to universal remote learning while the children of essential workers and youth deemed high risk by educators continue to attend class with rapid testing available to them.
Among their other demands: make N95 masks available to all staff and students who are aged 12 and older; put in place stringent restrictions "to protect the community at large from a needless loss of life and the destruction of the healthcare system;" and ensure education workers can receive a third third dose of vaccine.
Since the start of the 2021-22 school year, physical distancing has been encouraged, assessments and upgrades to ventilation systems have been made, and masks have been mandatory for all students and school staff. (Schools have been supplied with disposable, three-layer medical masks for staff, students and visitors, although the province has not issued universal orders around face covering quality.)
Education workers are also required to undergo rapid testing up to three times a week if they cannot provide proof of having received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine. And more recently, student athletes aged 12 and older also became subject to an order that requires they be vaccinated with at least one dose or provide proof of negative test results to participate in indoor extracurricular sports at school.
Teachers’ union president James Bedford said the education department asked stakeholders for feedback on its school reopening plan this week. His advice was to pivot to remote learning for the month of January and supply educators who must be on the frontlines with higher quality masks.
"The bottom line is, it’s about safety — not just of students, but of everybody who works in public schools," Bedford said Friday.
The union president noted substitutes are increasingly hard to come by so schools will not be able to operate if staff members call-in sick and must quarantine in large numbers due to significant community spread and the number of people they come into contact at work with throughout the week.
Provincial officials did not immediately provide comment Friday. The Manitoba School Boards’ Association declined comment on the subject.
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press