Manitoba schools set for in-person return to class
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Kindergarten to Grade 12 pupils in Manitoba are slated to restart classes following winter vacation both in-person and without a mask mandate, for the first time in three years.
Most students began 2021 and 2022 in distance learning, owing to efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 after Christmas and New Year’s Eve gatherings that public health officials had cautioned against.
“Classes for the 2022-23 school year will resume as usual following the holiday break,” wrote Education Minister Wayne Ewasko, in a statement Tuesday.
In an interview before the two-week break, Ewasko did not rule out the possibility of introducing a circuit-breaker period of e-learning at the start of the new calendar year.
High levels of illness — including COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza — and related absenteeism among staff and students alike, in addition to the chronic substitute shortage, had raised alarms heading into the holidays.
In Winnipeg, the inaugural day of 2023 instruction is Thursday. Other public school divisions are scheduled to welcome back students and teachers alike on Friday.
Face coverings remain optional in K-12 buildings, although the Louis Riel School Division’s board of trustees recently approved a motion to “strongly recommend the wearing of masks in all divisional facilities, including buses.”
“As a mom and scientist, I think it would have been a good idea to introduce mask (requirements) at school for at least a two- to three-week period to help prevent an influx of transmission post-holidays,” said Julie Lajoie, an immunologist at the University of Manitoba.
Lajoie said a temporary mandate would allow officials to assess how holiday gatherings and the transmission that took place amidst such meetings affects hospitals and emergency rooms, and prevent further severe strain on the health care system.
Given the province is moving ahead with the status quo, she said she highly recommends teachers and students who are able to wear a mask do so, while parents continue to keep their children at home when even minor symptoms appear.
The research associate noted she plans to send her kindergartener back to school with a mask.
“It is not gonna be easy, but I will sit down with her and explain to her why it is important once more,” Lajoie added.
Michelle Driedger, an expert in public health risk communication at U of M, said people in leadership positions — principals and teachers, in the school context — will have to wear face coverings again if divisions want to see an uptick in masking without a mandate.
“When you don’t have leadership modelling the behavior that you’re recommending, it’s really tough for others to follow,” the professor said, adding children look up to their teachers and masks have become increasingly rare in school communities, not unlike the rest of society, since March 15.
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society declined to comment. The leaders of the Manitoba School Boards Association could not be reached Tuesday.
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.