Two looming questions await any discussion of Manitoba students returning to school after a lengthy pandemic lockout:
When? And how?
It’s a foregone conclusion that the 2019-20 school year — at least, in terms of actual students and actual teachers sharing space in actual classrooms — has been written off as a result of Manitoba’s forceful but necessary effort to flatten the COVID-19 curve. Classes of the previously understood "normal" variety have been suspended at least through the end of the current academic calendar, and probably beyond that into a territory best described as "until further notice."
It’s safe to assume the provincial education ministry will not green-light a return to in-school classes until it’s reasonably safe to do so. There will be tremendous pressure from parents and their employers, as summer breezes its way into autumn and the days on the calendar flip toward back-to-school season, for Manitoba to resume an educational routine that allows families to reclaim control over their working/schooling/domestic schedules.
But how schooling returns to more familiar and comfortable rhythms will not be an uncomplicated matter. The safety of students, teachers and school staff must be paramount, which means the anticipated 2020-21 school year — which will almost inevitably be complicated by the pandemic’s second wave — will bear only passing resemblance to the abruptly interrupted 2019-20 campaign.
For insights into the challenges involved, one need look no further than Quebec’s rather hastened effort to return some students to schools effective May 11, and the breathtaking list of restrictions awaiting those youngsters whose families opted to take advantage of the optional-return opportunity.
Among the conditions included in a letter sent to parents prior to one Quebec school’s reopening:
"Students must not expect to return to their regular class with their classmates."
"Once assigned to a class, students will spend their entire day (including lunchtime) in their assigned seats."
"No physical materials will be transported back & forth between home & school."
"When weather permits, recess breaks will be held outdoors & will entail... walking outside safely distanced from one another in a pre-arranged pattern."
"Parent volunteers will not be permitted in school."
"Bathroom visits will be monitored/escorted so that proper disinfection by our caretakers can follow before another student uses the facilities."
And, perhaps most pointedly, in terms of leaving one pondering the point of the exercise:
"Activities completed while in school will not be evaluated or graded."
In terms of their regimentation and ability to inspire learning, Quebec’s guidelines seem more suited to Shawshank than a scholastic institution — an exercise in warehousing children to allow parents to resume their familiar and necessary routines, rather than an advancement of educational achievement and social development.
And it leaves one wondering who — other than parents who, owing to practicalities that can no longer be put off despite the ongoing pandemic, have no choice — would opt voluntarily to send their kids back to class under such onerous conditions.
The good news for Manitoba parents is that bureaucrats and educators here have at least a couple of months to create the best possible framework for the resumption of in-school learning. When students do finally return to their classrooms for whatever constitutes the 2020-21 school year, the hope is that their new routine will meld caution and protection with innovation and opportunity, creating a learning environment that inspires rather than oppresses.
This will be, on many levels, Manitoba’s teachable moment.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.
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