With a soundtrack of chatty eighth graders on repeat, Sean Fitzmaurice’s new office passes as a typical middle-years classroom.
Just don’t look up.
The basketball nets are a clear giveaway this space was never meant to house rows of student desks, stocked bookshelves or an interactive whiteboard.
"I’ve spent a lot of time teaching my students about COVID and how it works and why we’re doing the things we’re doing, so I’m actually happy to see that we have more space," said Fitzmaurice, during an interview after school Monday — his first day teaching Grade 8 in a gymnasium at Edmund Partridge Community School.
"But it definitely impacts the way we’re able to do our jobs (as teachers)."
Fitzmaurice said the large space exaggerates existing challenges with classroom learning during the pandemic, and he lists off complications with doing hands-on activities, ensuring students are following public health protocols and projecting his teaching voice.
In Manitoba’s capital and north region, schools are now in a restricted pandemic phase (code orange) that requires renewed focus on two metres of physical distancing in schools, puts singing and wind-instrument use on hiatus and cancels field trips for the foreseeable future.
"The focus (previously) was more on finding a way to do school as normal as possible for kids within social distancing guidelines, and now we’re being told optimal is two metres to the greatest extent possible," said Mia Guenther, principal at Edmund Partridge, a middle-years school of 370 students in Seven Oaks.
For that reason, Guenther spent the weekend finalizing details for a safe return to school as case counts continue to spike and community transmission grows in Winnipeg. Most classrooms in the school can now accommodate just under two metres between students, she said, adding that the gymnasium, music room and drama room have been repurposed to improve physical distancing.
Grade 7 student Alyssa Thongvankham now calls the drama room her homeroom, one of many changes the 12-year-old student has experienced this school year.
"It’s better for spreading out so we don’t catch COVID," she said, during a break from social studies Monday.
While Thongvankham said she misses being able to hang out closely with her friends without worry, she’d rather be in class than at home because of how isolated she felt remote learning in the springtime.
In order to get up to code for Monday, teachers removed their reading nooks, shelving units and mask-break zones. Some entire classrooms have been relocated to more spacious areas. In other instances, teachers have spread out their homeroom into two physical rooms to expand the distance between neighbouring pupils.
That third scenario, known as duplex classrooms, has become increasingly popular in Manitoba as schools get creative ensuring two metres of physical distancing is possible. Such models require support staff supervise classrooms where a teacher isn’t physically present, and teachers run back and forth — often to neighbouring rooms to provide instruction.
Citing teacher stress and student success, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society has called on divisions to ensure every classroom has a teacher.
"Every child deserves a teacher in a classroom — not every other child deserves a teacher in the other classroom that’s occasionally in their classroom," said union president James Bedford, who represents upwards of 16,000 teachers in Manitoba.
Divisions must either hire a teacher for every classroom or find larger spaces to hold classes, even if it means sourcing space outside school grounds, Bedford added.
Winnipeg mother Alyzia Horsfall has other concerns about the code-orange response; she wants her daughter in Grade 8 to be able to do remote school, and it isn’t being offered at River Heights School.
"How safe your kid gets to be is determined by your area code," Horsfall said, adding she is particularly concerned about COVID-19 because of her severe asthma.
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In the Winnipeg School Division, individual schools decide whether remote learning is available. The division has indicated the option will be available in schools where two metres of distancing is not feasible.
All divisions have -- and continue to take -- different approaches, as has been the case since back-to-school planning started in the summer.
Despite all the challenges of rejigging in Seven Oaks School Division, Guenther said she remains hopeful at Edmund Partridge.
"I’m just happy that kids are back in school," the principal said, "although we all come in with a level of apprehension, with this bigger thing that’s looming over us, we all want to be here and we all want to make it as safe as possible so it’s sustainable."
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.
To date, there have been 154 cases of COVID-19 in schools across the province.
Three school outbreaks have been declared since the first day of school, with two active and one — the most severe — declared over.
At John Pritchard School, where the first school outbreak took place, 28 people were affected in the school, including 24 students and four staff members. (In total, 39 cases have been associated with the outbreak.)
Bird's Hill School had recorded four cases, as of Monday. Arborgate School had recorded three.