WINNIPEG – Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen announced Thursday afternoon that K-12 students will be going back to classrooms in September.
However, Goertzen says this coming school year won’t look like school years we’ve seen before. Many new cleaning protocols will be put in place for both schools and buses.
Students will be sorted into cohorts and seating plans will be created to accommodate physical distancing. Recesses and lunch breaks will be staggered to minimize contact with different student cells.
If possible, teachers will be asked to change classrooms instead of students.
Buses will be running at reduced capacity and parents will be asked to transport their children to school if they can.
Masks aren’t being mandated by the province at this point.
Goertzen says many Manitoba parents, students, and teachers struggled with e-learning over the last few months, and weighing safety and the value of in-class learning has been challenging.
“The best place for students is in the classroom,” said Goertzen.
He says the provincial government has worked closely with public health officials to create back-to-school plans.
“We need to continue to balance the risk of COVID-19 with many things, including students getting back to in-class learning,” said Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, who was on hand for the schooling announcement.
He says the new health “fundamentals” will help reduce the risk while making sure students can continue learning.
“It’s critical that we find ways to continue to live with this virus.”
Both Russo and Goertzen underlined the importance of staying home if you are sick and practicing good hand hygiene.
The Manitoba School Boards Association said most high schools will be hard-pressed to accommodate full-time classroom learning.
“Five days a week is likely not feasible under the current circumstances for the vast majority of high schools,” association president Alan Campbell said.
Unlike Ontario’s plan, also released Thursday, Manitoba is not making face masks for students or staff mandatory.
“It’s not part of our plan right now … but we’re continuing to review all these things and we’ll continue to update as needed,” said Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer.
Schools will be asked to ensure that students are separated by two metres as much as possible. Where that can’t be done, students are to be grouped into cohorts of up to 75 and remain apart from other groups.
Lunch and recess breaks are to be staggered to minimize congestion and in many cases teachers will change classrooms instead of students.
Buses will run at reduced capacity and parents will be asked to take their children to school if they can. In some schools, resource rooms and other areas may have to be converted to classrooms to ensure students can maintain physical distancing.
There will also be increased screening of visitors and more cleaning of surfaces.
To pay for the new requirements, the government wants school boards to use $48 million they saved when schools were closed in March. The Manitoba Teachers’ Society said that may not be enough.
“We are certainly hoping that when it’s necessary, and where it’s necessary, that the province is willing to step in with financial assistance to ensure everybody’s safety in schools,” society president James Bedford said.
Bedford also said some school divisions will need help attracting more substitute teachers to fill in for educators who feel sick and have to stay home.
The Opposition New Democrats said the government is not offering schools enough money to adapt.
“It’s only maybe $220, $240 dollars per student,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.
“That may not be enough even to cover the cleaning and protective equipment costs for a given school year.”
With files from The Canadian Press.