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For parents uncomfortable with sending their children to school this fall, there are two options: get comfortable with classroom instruction in the COVID-19 era, or take up home-schooling.
Allison McCulloch does not want to pick either.
There is only one month left until the first day of school, but McCulloch remains undecided about how her 14-year-old son will start off his high school experience in the Brandon School Division.
"We’re making backup plans for home-schooling because we don't see how, from the information provided to us already, they can assure safety within the schools, keeping to a two-metre distance and so on," she said Tuesday, during a phone call from Brandon.
A recent spike in cases and her partner’s pre-existing health condition are top of mind as the McCulloch family plans for the upcoming school year, based off guidelines and measures which critics argue do not take enough precautions or offer additional funding to cash-strapped divisions.
The province has asked all schools to aim to have students back for in-person learning full-time, but physical distancing could mean Grade 9-12 students in crowded schools do blended learning, with at least two days of classroom instruction per week.
McCulloch is among a growing number of parents in the province calling for a full-time remote learning option for students in all grades.
While Ontario’s plan guarantees an option to enrol students in remote delivery, citing the importance of respecting caregivers' "fundamental role" in deciding whether they feel safe with their child returning, there has been no such announcement in Manitoba. A spokesperson for Manitoba Education said in a statement Tuesday that only students who have been medically advised to stay home, owing to COVID-19-related risk factors, will have access to division-level remote learning. Otherwise, the options are public school, independent school or home-school.
Awaiting answers from her children's Winnipeg schools, Karyn Balser started a petition two weeks ago in favour of the province creating an online learning alternative. As of Tuesday afternoon, it had garnered more than 1,750 signatures.
"Our children can’t be guinea pigs for an all-or-nothing approach. There needs to be an in-between option," the mother of two wrote on the Change.org page.
Balser, who has school-aged children entering kindergarten and Grade 7, told the Free Press that if the province refuses to cap class sizes and invest in concrete precautions, the least it can do is provide parents with options.
An early signatory, Winnipeg mother Rhonda Hinther, echoed those comments Tuesday. Hinther, whose son is a soon-to-be Grade 4 student, said providing parents with another option would benefit all families since class sizes would likely drop and physical distancing in schools would be more feasible.
"As everyone else was enjoying new hobbies and baking bread (during the learning disruptions), I was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week — and also, apparently home-schooling my own children, which did not happen," said Lauren McBoland, a high school math and science teacher. (McBoland is not her legal last name, but she uses it as a pseudonym on social media to protect her privacy, and for fear of workplace reprisal.)
“Our children can’t be guinea pigs for an all-or-nothing approach. There needs to be an in-between option.” — Karyn Balser
McBoland said Tuesday if the province is not willing to fund a safe return, there will be no safe return to classroom learning this fall. She said she’s "deeply concerned" about the number of parents considering home-schooling.
"(Choosing) the option to home-school is effectively defunding the public school system. I don’t want to defund the system. I believe in public education, but that means public education need to serve its constituents."
The Manitoba Association for Schooling at Home has reported increased interest in membership this year; since early March, the group has grown from approximately 510 official members to 550. A longtime member, Jennifer Gehman said Tuesday she has mostly been fielding calls from parents looking for an interim measure until the pandemic is over because of concerns over how schools are reopening in September.
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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