Last Wednesday marked the first day in the latest round of remote learning for most Manitoba students, as part of a planned three-week measure intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. While many people are relieved by the move, others are rightfully questioning how and why we got here, again.
That the school announcement came on Mother’s Day — thrusting teachers/mothers into planning mode on a day when they should have been in a more R&R frame of mind — felt galling, considering that on the home front, it’s working mothers in particular who have borne the brunt of this pandemic and it’s working mothers who were once again scrambling to find child care.
But what’s more distressing is the nagging inclination that this could have been avoided.
For many teachers, this latest lockdown amounts to too little, too late — a decision that should have been made earlier, when they first began sounding the alarm. And the current crisis might have been mitigated if Manitoba had prioritized vaccinating teachers, instead of debating whether or not to send them to North Dakota for their shots.
Shutting down in-person learning could have happened when virus variants began taking over, and when it became apparent young people were making up the majority of new infections. It could have occurred when April 2021 started resembling October 2020 on the COVID-19 graph.
Keeping kids in schools is desirable and necessary for a host of socio-economic reasons. But Manitoba fumbled its opportunity to keep students in classrooms by not being more aggressive in controlling community spread. The continuing nip-and-tuck approach to restrictions didn’t work last fall, so there was little reason to believe it would be more successful now.
Throughout the pandemic, health officials have been adamant that significant virus transmission was not occurring in the school setting. But as increasing case numbers forced numerous schools to shut down in-person learning, the province’s steadfast insistence that schools were not experiencing virus spread became harder to accept.
Of course, people in other settings have also clearly been shown to be contributing to the current record-breaking surge. To that end, it’s not just teachers or schools or the government that share the responsibility for the current school-closure situation. The fact contact tracers were pointing to sleepovers, parties and playdates in April, just as cases began a steady upward climb, is evidence of embarrassing and reckless behaviour outside school walls.
A cursory social-media scroll or a stroll through any neighbourhood will also reveal smaller infractions, involving people who likely believe they are following the spirit of the public-health orders but are still allowing groups of kids to congregate — outside, but unmasked and not distanced.
Children have been asked to sacrifice more than enough during these many hard months. But the pandemic has also been an ongoing teachable moment: one’s birthday slumber party is not more important than the safety of your community; one’s graduation party is not more important than the safety of your community. Everyone is missing things; everyone is frustrated and exhausted. Remote learning is frustrating and exhausting.
And the frustration and exhaustion are compounded the longer it drags out — which is why priority vaccination for teachers and early childhood educators, coupled with much earlier consideration of a targeted, sharp, short school lockdown, might have prevented what seems destined, despite the province’s stated desire to have students back in class in June, to be another unsatisfactory ending to another interrupted school year in Manitoba.