Students across city plan walkouts Monday over safety concerns

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Teenagers are organizing walkouts at public and independent schools across the city in protest of the few virus-safety protocols that will be in place when they return to in-person classes Monday.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/01/2022 (215 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Teenagers are organizing walkouts at public and independent schools across the city in protest of the few virus-safety protocols that will be in place when they return to in-person classes Monday.

Shortly before lunchtime Monday, the first day of face-to-face learning after an extended winter break, students at more than 30 schools are planning to protest the provincial government’s response to the fast-spreading Omicron-variant COVID-19 surge.

“I want to go to the movies, I want to go to school, I want to do all of that, but doctors and scientists are saying that it’s not safe and they’re saying that 40 per cent of us already have COVID,” said Cooper Vint, a Grade 10 student at Grant Park High School.

Ava Byrne, 15, a student at Kelvin High School, is organizing a student walk-out at high schools in Winnipeg to advocate for safer learning during the pandemic. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

“I don’t want (anyone else to get seriously sick) and I don’t want to be responsible for that happening.”

The students — taking action under the MB Student Walkout for COVID Safety 2022 banner — want an option to enrol in remote learning indefinitely so physical classroom attendance numbers can be reduced. They also want the province to ensure teens have immediate access to booster shots, N95 masks and rapid tests, as well as reassurance they will continue being notified when there is a positive case in their school, in order to feel comfortable returning to K-12 buildings.

The initiative, devised by 15-year-old Kelvin High School student Ava Byrne, was inspired by similar action taken in New York earlier this week.

“(The premier) basically told us that, ‘We’re just going to have to deal with it because everyone’s going to get Omicron,’ which was careless,” said Byrne, a 10th-grader. “So I thought it’d be a good idea to show the government that students have a voice and we’ll use it when they’re putting us in danger.”

The Winnipeg School Division is aware of the walkout plan and will monitor the situation Monday to ensure both participants and non-participants remain safe, said Radean Carter, senior information officer for Manitoba’s largest district.

“This protest action is not organized by WSD; however, we support students’ right to peacefully protest and put their education of the democratic process into action,” Carter wrote in an email Friday.

Education Minister Cliff Cullen was asked about the planned demonstrations earlier in the week and encouraged students to “have a second thought,” discuss the situation with their parents and reach out to individual teachers about the new safety protocols in schools.

Cullen said he has heard from pediatricians who say school closures have severely impacted some student’ mental health, as well as teachers, who’ve told him students learn best when they can do so in a classroom.

“We’ve taken as many precautions as we can to really try to mitigate this risk as we have to work with COVID,” Cullen told a news conference, noting the province has been distributing rapid tests and medical-grade masks to schools.

“We’ve got to get back to some form of normalcy, whatever that may look like.”

In response to rising Omicron cases, the province announced a phase-in return to school in 2022 after the winter break, and adjusted measures to ensure staff wear medical-grade masks, students wear three-ply face coverings and educators reorganize classrooms to expand physical distancing.

Sports tournaments and overnight trips have been suspended indefinitely. Some schools will soon receive portable air-filtration units as part of a new initiative to improve ventilation.

Grade 12 student Weldon Scott, however, wants to know how many politicians have physically set foot inside a school recently.

“They don’t know what we’re going through,” the 17 year old said during a Zoom call with the Free Press and a half-dozen student organizers.

Many of the teens on the Friday video call indicated physical distancing of two metres is not possible in their classrooms, lunchtime protocols require students to remove their masks all at once in poorly ventilated areas, and not all of their peers or teachers strictly follow mask rules.

Grade 12 student Brie Villeneuve said remote learning is not, in and of itself, the cause of mental-health issues, no matter how many times government officials and walkout critics might suggest that it is. In fact, the 18 year old at Grant Park said learning of the province’s back-to-school plans only raised anxiety and depression.

“We’re struggling with mental health because there’s a global pandemic. Everyone is,” Villeneuve said.

There have been at least 4,642 cases — 77 per cent of which are among students — and more than 30 outbreaks connected to schools since Labour Day thus far.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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Updated on Friday, January 14, 2022 5:46 PM CST: fixes typo in cutline

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