Carolyn Orzech, a mother of two children, says her kids have been practising wearing masks in preparation of schools reopening in September.

Her son, a Grade 5 student in the Seven Oaks School Division, is part of the age group that will be required to wear a mask on buses, the provincial government announced in a news release on Aug. 13.

"I think there’s still a lot of unknown for sure. But I do think the kids and everyone needs to learn how to live with the virus," Orzech said.

While it is "strongly recommended" that students in grades 5 to 12 and staff wear non-medical masks when physical distancing of two metres or more in schools is not possible, students in grades 5 and up, as well as drivers, will be required to wear masks on buses. Masks are optional for students below Grade 5 in both schools and on buses.

"Non-medical masks should not be worn by anyone who is unable to remove one without assistance or by those with breathing difficulties," the province stated in the news release.

The province will provide masks to school divisions for distribution to students and staff, as well as other personal protective equipment. However, the SOSD will supply reusable masks to all staff and students in grades 5 and up.

SOSD posted its reopening plan on Aug. 17, two weeks before division offices are scheduled to reopen on Aug. 31.

Orzech, an education assistant at a Winnipeg private school, is optimistic about schools reopening, but admitted many uncertainties still exist.

"I’m more concerned for how it’s going to affect the kids, the major differences within the school," she said.

"I have told my five-year-old that she is not to be hugging students, teachers; touching, holding hands. And I’ve asked her to wear a mask as long as she can … but I don’t anticipate her being able to do that all day."

Orzech said her family will semi-quarantine for the first month of schools being reopened, including no contact with the kids’ grandparents who are part of a vulnerable age group.

At press time, according to SOSD superintendent Brian O’Leary, some changes will include physical distancing on buses — one student per seat, but exceptions may be made for kids from the same household or school cohort — as well as multiple bus runs throughout the day. Students in close proximity to their school who would typically take the bus may be asked to walk.

Phys-ed will likely be held outside, while music and band classes will move to the gym, and recesses will be staggered, O’Leary said.

High school students may participate in some remote learning, attending school at least every second day; but kindergarten to Grade 8 students will return to school full-time, which is a province-wide guideline.

The school division will continue to do what it can to support any necessary remote learning, such as connecting families to wi-fi and providing access to technology.

"The real challenge is, you know, last (school) year teachers had strong relationships with their students when we went through remote learning, and a lot of those relationships need to be established or re-established. So our focus is going to be on, you know, welcoming kids back and rebuilding those relationships," O’Leary said.

Things may look different for substitute teachers, as well.

"So we’ve hired some additional teachers on a kind of full-time contract and we’ll assign them as kind of first-call subs to some of our schools," O’Leary said, adding that it is likely schools will continue to rely on substitutes despite the potential risk involved.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, said in the province’s release that closures will be a "last resort" should a case of COVID-19 occur at a school. He added that Public Health will work with school administrators to identify close contacts if there is an outbreak.

"The areas of a school where exposures took place will be cleaned and disinfected, and these areas will not be used until it is determined safe to do so. School communities will be notified when a student at their school is a confirmed case, once close contacts have been identified," the release stated.

According to a letter released by the SOSD, the division will release details about transportation the week of Aug. 24, and the school plan the week of Aug. 31.

Orientation meetings for students in kindergarten to Grade 8 will take place Sept. 8 and 9; all Grade 9 students will return to school Sept. 8; and all other high school students will return Sept. 9.

Visit 7oaks.org for further and up-to-date details.

Sydney Hildebrandt

Sydney Hildebrandt
Community Journalist - The Times

Sydney Hildebrandt is the community journalist for The Times. Email her at sydney.hildebrandt@canstarnews.com

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