Thousands of families in the Manitoba capital have received the dreaded letter — stamped with a Winnipeg Regional Health Authority logo in the top left-hand corner — since Sept. 8.
"Dear parent/guardian of students at (X) school, Manitoba public health officials advised (X) school today of a confirmed case of COVID-19," states the template Dr. Heejune Chang, medical officer of health for the region, is required to sign.
Owing to public-health concerns about privacy and stigma, the notices are vague. They include exposure dates and suggestions to self-monitor for symptoms — just enough information to raise pulses and make parents question their back-to-school choice for 2020-21.
"There’s no good decisions. There’s just various levels of bad decisions," mother Luanne Karn said about decision-making during the pandemic.
Two months into the school-year, the Milne-Karns, Parenteaus and Blum-Paynes have each received at least one exposure letter; even if their child isn’t attending school on a daily basis, the three families all remain connected to their school communities, in the hopes of a return to in-class normalcy next fall.
Three families make different educational choices during pandemicClick to Expand
Posted: 18/09/2020 7:00 PM
Meet the Milne-Karns, the Parenteaus and the Blum-Paynes.
Anna Milne-Karn and her moms Heather Milne and Luanne Karn live in Wolseley.
In no particular order, the virus has visited Ecole Laura Secord (Anna Milne-Karn’s school), Isaac Brock School (Carter Parenteau’s school), the University of Winnipeg Collegiate (Josiah Parenteau’s school) and Ecole Sacré-Coeur (Emby Blum-Payne’s school).
After Grade 12 student Josiah Parenteau learned Oct. 21 of an exposure in his cohort at the U of W Collegiate, he opted to stay home the next day. The Winnipeg teenager has been doing both in-class and online learning this fall.
"It’s going pretty well," he said about his senior year, exposure disruption aside. "But I don’t love chemistry."
Upwards of 270 schools in Manitoba in total, approximately two-thirds of which are in Winnipeg, have recorded a COVID-19 exposure, to date. That’s according to an anonymous parent’s public spreadsheet on the subject, which pulls data from government updates, family submissions and news articles.
Given the rapidly rising virus caseload and related contact-tracing backlog, both the crowd-sourced spreadsheet and school administrators have increasingly been alerting families about COVID-19 exposures before public-health officials can.
Since Sept. 8, Winnipeg’s COVID-19 situation has deteriorated from a caution level (yellow) to a restricted phase (orange) to critical (red).
Schools have been downgraded from yellow to orange, which has broadened remote learning opportunities for interested families and put more of an emphasis on two metres of physical distancing in classrooms, but the province’s top doctor says there is limited transmission in schools.
"In part, we are making these sacrifices and changes so schools and child-care centres can stay safe and stay open," chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin announced Nov. 10, after he prescribed new lockdown-like measures amid the second wave of COVID-19 in Manitoba.
Teachers, parents and students alike are facing the stresses of new restrictions inside and outside schools.
The Milne-Karns experienced a recent COVID-19 scare after a school exposure. The Parenteaus have temporarily shrunk their youngest child’s home-school bubble and group land-based learning with his cousins. And the Blum-Paynes are navigating their only daughter’s emotions while the outgoing third grader’s interactions with classmates are limited to a computer screen.
"We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘Is it worth it?’ because (officials) keep saying there isn’t a lot of transmission in the school," father Andy Blum said.
No matter the families’ situations — be it back-to-school, home-school or remote school, the pandemic has prompted parents to pay closer attention to their children’s learning than ever before.
"My expectations about both my kids are really high. I expect them to do their work," said mother Anna Parenteau.
But now, as a 24-7 teacher, she says she sees first-hand when her boys are tired, hungry or simply having a tough time during the school day.
The pandemic, she said, has made her more patient.
Warnings and worries in Wolseley
Anna Milne-Karn’s Barbie medical clinic is equipped with an examination table, tiny medical supplies and a doll-sized health-care professional.
Aside from its hot pink-and-white decor, Luanne Karn said her daughter’s toy is "identical" to the COVID-19 testing site at 1181 Portage Ave.
Karn would know — she’s become familiar with both facilities, as have her partner and her daughter.
"It feels like water going up your nose," Anna said, recalling the experience of getting her nasal cavity swabbed by a life-sized health-care worker at the real testing site last week.
Because kids often flinch when getting tested, Heather Milne was tasked with putting their eight-year-old daughter in a special hold. The test made Anna sneeze three times.
The scene played out just after 10 a.m. on Nov. 13, sandwiched between Anna’s mothers’ tests.
The Milne-Karns scheduled appointments after being alerted of a COVID-19 exposure in Anna’s class, Room 214 at École Laura Secord.
The family received three emails from administrators on Remembrance Day about a positive case present at the Wolseley elementary school days earlier. It wasn’t the first time they had received the dreaded notice, but there was extra cause for concern this time around, given Milne and Anna had been staying home because of mild symptoms.
Milne was feeling fatigued and Anna didn’t go to school Nov. 10 because she had a sore throat and headache. (Before the pandemic, it was the kind of mild illness Milne says they would have given Anna an Advil and sent her to school.)
To their relief, the test results, which came back within 48 hours, were negative.
"Once you get tested for the first time, it takes you to a whole other level of thinking about the pandemic. It’s not hypothetical anymore," Karn said during a FaceTime call while the family was isolating while awaiting the results.
Milne echoed those comments, saying a COVID-19 scare heightens uncertainty and related stresses, including making contingency plans for sick days and school closures.
There’s a new level of responsibility for parents when it comes to communicating with children about the crisis, Karn added.
“(School) is so valuable for her mental health. Her teacher this year is so fantastic. She’s learning a lot.” – Heather Milne
When schools entered a restricted (code-orange) phase, Anna’s Grade 3 class was split into two rooms. Many of her peers have since opted for temporary remote learning, so the duplex class has collapsed into one room again.
Should in-person classes be cancelled, Karn will provide home-school lessons. A resource teacher currently on leave, she is more than qualified.
But for now, Anna happily goes to school. To date, her 2020-21 academic highlights are mainly art projects, including making poppies for Remembrance Day and painting sunflowers while learning about Vincent van Gogh.
The two moms call their daughter’s teacher a "hero" who has helped Anna dramatically improve her French skills.
"(School) is so valuable for her mental health. Her teacher this year is so fantastic. She’s learning a lot," Milne said. "We would love for her to be there, but of course, as parents, we’re concerned about COVID numbers. We are really feeling like the government has let us down."
The Milne-Karns have been calling for the province to increase public-education funding this year.
Most recently, Karn has co-organized Parents for Public Education — a group of hundreds who have penned an open letter to the province with calls to action in support of teachers.
Their demands include fast-tracking virus tests for teachers, providing school staff with appropriate personal protective equipment and spending the $85.4 million in federal funding earmarked for back-to-school on COVID-19-related supports for education.
Time out for cousins
The home-school bubble has burst.
Two months into the school year, COVID-19 is to blame for yet another disruption in the Parenteau family’s lives.
Carter Parenteau and his cousin-classmates are all learning in their separate homes during the second lockdown — that’s his family’s new education plan, until the curve flattens and gatherings can resume freely.
Despite prior confusion over public-health officials’ directives to stay home conflicting with an order that permits limited meetings between households, the Parenteaus are being proactive.
"We’re all taking responsibility for our own kids now, but we’re trying to keep the same schedule," Anna Parenteau says during a group video call on a recent school day.
In Silver Heights, Carter will carry on with his Grade 4 reading, writing, math and penmanship work independently.
He will keep speaking Ojibwe with his parents and practising new words as he draws in a cultural colouring book compiled by his father Jason.
But the province’s code-red restrictions won’t get in the way of Carter’s land-based learning. Or that of his older brother Josiah, a Grade 12 student at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate.
With nearly all activities off limits, it’s a perfect opportunity to get outside and set up some rabbit snares, Jason says.
He has already taken the boys out to fish and catch rabbits, grouse and deer, skin the animals and prepare them this fall. The weekly field trips have become known as no-screen-Fridays.
"When you’re out there, it’s about being aware: being aware of nature, wilderness, animals. If you’re not (aware), you miss out," says Jason.
Not only are the outings an opportunity to learn about their culture, he adds, but also the anatomy of animals and what parts are edible.
Carter has become particularly fond of deer tongue and rabbit brain; the nine-year-old likes to spread the latter on fresh bannock for breakfast.
There has been no shortage of cooking on the fall syllabus. He’s learned how to make everything from a box of Kraft Dinner to deer-meat stew.
Following a visit to their hunt camp in southwestern Manitoba in October, the Parenteaus and their cousins took their sons out to do safe deer-meat deliveries. The young boys put on masks and took the offerings to elders, speakers, and loved ones in their community who are sick and isolated because of the pandemic. They could not, however, get to relatives in Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation, who are living under a lockdown.
“We just have to adjust to the fact that we’re in red zone, and all the decisions we made for the school were when it was yellow.” – Anna Parenteau
The health of elders and at-risk family members is what prompted the Parenteaus to decide to keep Carter home this school year in the first place. The growing caseload has only reinforced their belief they made the right decision.
"It’s one less thing to worry about," Jason says — but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy for the kids.
Kenny Kennedy, who is in Grade 3, has been crying a lot since finding out he would no longer be able to visit Carter or his other cousin-classmate, MJ Patrick-Prieston, a couple of weeks ago, his mother, Dawnis Kennedy says.
The boys have been going online to play Minecraft, Fortnite and Roblox together, although it’s no substitute for working on group projects together.
"We just have to adjust to the fact that we’re in red zone, and all the decisions we made for the school were when it was yellow," she says.
It’s also been a tough few months for Carter, who recently learned he has an allergy to cold exposure (cold urticaria) and will have to be extra careful about bundling up this winter, even for a short trip to the dog park. He misses his older friends — both his cousin-classmates are in Grade 3 — and his teachers at Isaac Brock School.
"He started writing a book about his hunting and fishing adventures; that’s helped," Anna says, adding they have been able to FaceTime a former teacher of Carter's, and have received approval for some remote support.
The Winnipeg School Division’s remote-learning programming conflicts with their existing setup, however, so they’ve been mainly sticking to their original plan.
Late for class
There was frost the morning Emby Blum-Payne woke up for her first day of virtual school.
Nearly two months after Labour Day, the eight-year-old signed online to meet her teacher and classmates for their Nov. 6 inaugural remote class.
"It started off with introducing ourselves, like, what grade, our name and if we know anyone," said the always-chatty Emby, moments after the class wrapped up the first video session.
The students vary in grades, between third and fifth, but they are all in French immersion — the main reason for the delay in the start of their school year; for weeks, the Winnipeg School Division was attempting to recruit and finalize French teacher hiring for its virtual classes.
The first session was intimidating, the enthusiastic, outgoing Emby recalled.
At one point, the third-grader says her new teacher muted herself so the students could talk among themselves via webcam and computer.
Nobody had anything to say. Instead, the children started to retrieve their pets as if it were show-and-tell.
Emby scooped up Ravage, one of her cats, into her arms and showed him off.
In order to protect Emby’s grandfather, who is at-risk and lives in their Elmwood home, the Blum-Paynes have limited the time they spend with others through virtual visits and physically distanced outdoor hangouts.
The family’s two cats, Ravage and Edge, and dogs Maisy and Elsie, have been some of Emby’s closest companions in recent months. She wakes up at 6 a.m. every day to walk the dogs with her dad, Andy Blum, before he leaves for work.
The only time Emby has visited her school, Ecole Sacré-Coeur, this fall was for picture day and even then, she was rushed to the front of the photo line to speed up the visit.
"Emby’s really been struggling not being in school. She misses her teachers and friends, and she’s so extroverted that it’s hard for her to be home," mother Krystal Payne said during a physically distant porch interview on the first day of virtual school.
"But if I look at it from a community test-positivity rate, I feel really good about (the remote-learning decision)."
The Blum-Paynes recently sought out advice from a child psychologist about their decision to keep Emby home.
The psychologist suggested the family request one-on-one time with their daughter’s new teacher so they can start to build a trusting relationship, Blum said, adding he’s hoping the therapist will help him improve his teaching relationship with Emby.
The bilingual parent, Blum has been tasked with helping Emby with her French homework.
“Emby’s really been struggling not being in school. She misses her teachers and friends, and she’s so extroverted that it’s hard for her to be home.” – Krystal Payne
"(We) get pretty frustrated at each other," he said. "The problem is, I’m not a teacher — and it’s a totally different dynamic when we’re sitting down and trying to go over (work). It’s just so far outside of our routine."
Since the virtual classes just began, Emby and her mom have been spending much of their days working on the home-school curriculum Payne purchased to supplement her daughter’s remote learning.
And, while they were waiting for the division’s virtual school launch, teachers at Ecole Sacré-Coeur checked in with Emby and invited her to participate in classroom activities with her in-class peers.
The home-school curriculum is reliant on reading, so they’ve already read a handful of texts, including Alice in Wonderland and El Deafo, which Emby said is "the best book ever."
The graphic novel about bunnies is a loose autobiographical account of author Cece Bell’s experience growing up deaf.
School aside, Emby has been participating in virtual vocal lessons and Girl Scouts. And she was involved in sports until the province temporarily banned indoor recreational activities recently.
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.