The indefinite suspension of in-person classes may mean all Manitoba students will finish the school year via worksheets and online lessons.
At a news conference Tuesday morning, Premier Brian Pallister and Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen announced the latest measure to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus: putting all kindergarten to Grade 12 classroom instruction on hold, until further notice.
The decision, they said, was made in the interest of students, teachers, and the entire population of Manitoba.
"If, prior to the regularly scheduled conclusion of the school year, the public health officer determines that it is safe to reopen our schools, then we would eagerly welcome our students back," Goertzen said.
Goertzen said all students who were on track to graduate when classes were initially suspended will obtain diplomas at the end of the school year. However, while marks will be held at where they were on the last day of regular classes or exams, students are expected to continue learning.
"There is an incentive to continue to work, to continue to learn — not just because learning is an incentive unto itself, but because they will be rewarded with additional and more positive marks," he said.
Perspectives on indefinitely suspended classes
A student, a teacher and a parent share their thoughts about the possible end of the school year.
Chaya Tabac has long been awaiting senior year. Not only to obtain her diploma, but for senior skip day, spirit week, and celebrating graduation.
The 17-year-old never expected her last day roaming Kelvin High School’s halls could very well be a day she and her friends weren’t supposed to hug or be even one-metre close to one another.
“It’s really upsetting to not be able to see certain people everyday and have the experience most seniors do,” Chaya said.
Among the more than 200,000 students in Manitoba who will be learning from home until further notice, approximately 18,000 are in their final year. Students such as Chaya had planned to spend the next three months collecting final credits, competing in their final high school sporting competitions, and attending convocation in formal attire picked out long ago.
While Chaya said she doesn’t mind online classes — in fact, she said coursework is keeping her busy since there’s little else to do — she misses seeing her friends everyday and eating lunch in the Winnipeg school's cafeteria.
Samantha Pope had originally planned some science dissections for her students to complete at the end of March, but her lesson plans have since changed.
The Grade 8 math and science teacher at George Waters Middle School in Winnipeg is trying to adapt to an e-learning-focused teaching model now that classes are pivoting online indefinitely — disappointing news for students looking forward to using a scalpel to do hands-on learning.
Pope and her colleagues are using platforms including Office365 and OneNote, and sharing links to online lessons such as Mathletics to encourage distance learning.
“We’ve had a few weeks to kind of start wrapping our heads around it. With how it’s been going so far, I think it’s going to be alright,” she said. “Phoning home and talking to kids has been a really good way to touch base.”
Looking ahead, she said the foresees undertaking individual assessments as the biggest challenge in the coming weeks.
Students across the province are logging online to finish up their semesters as educators rally behind e-learning, but Dawn Gregory and her children are staying offline.
Since she doesn’t have a reliable device at home, Gregory’s lessons for her grades 4 and 5 children have focused on physical worksheets, homemade science experiments, and nature walks.
The family has kept busy throughout the initial closures, but Gregory said she’s concerned about the reading program her Grade 4 son has been participating in to improve literacy skills. He was supposed to start the program again when school was scheduled to resume after spring break, she said.
As for her Grade 12 son, Gregory said she’s concerned about his mental health now that his final year is on hold.
“My kid’s been working so hard in order to graduate,” she said.
“He doesn’t work well alone. He'd rather work in a group, he’d rather work in a classroom. He’d rather have other people's opinions and discussion and everything.”
— Maggie Macintosh
Abby Woytowich, a Grade 12 student at Vincent Massey Collegiate in Winnipeg, plans to complete additional assignments during the coming weeks to improve her grades for university scholarships and keep productive during the closures.
All extra-curricular activities have been cancelled and the status of individual convocation ceremonies remains in limbo since Manitobans are currently prohibited from attending gatherings that exceed 10 people.
While she said school certainly won’t be the same without band, Woytowich called the suspensions "absolutely, 100 per cent necessary... The best thing to come out of this would be for Manitoba’s reaction to seem like an overreaction."
Manitoba educators will continue to teach remotely, assign work, conduct assessments and prepare final report cards.
Although provincial exams will be cancelled for Grade 12 students, teachers will continue to assign work and undertake assessments. For students in early and middle years, provincial assessments are complete for the current school year, but other assignments will continue.
School buildings will remain closed, but child-care centres will continue operating under the new provincial guidelines. Caretakers will also continue to sanitize the facilities.
Both the Opposition and unions who represent educators called on the Pallister government Tuesday to ensure all employees in the education sector are paid during the suspensions.
Pallister said other school staff will be reassigned to help supplement learning, where possible. Programming will be in place so people don't fall through the cracks, he added.
"We are going to have some catch-up to do when normal classes resume, there’s no question about that — but I think, overwhelming, everybody is doing their best… to provide those resources, where it is unequal," Goertzen said.
The education minister said the province is working alongside school divisions to try to level the playing field for all students, whether or not they have consistent access to the internet and electronic devices.
"It’s good that we’re well into the school year so (student-teacher) relationships have already been established, so it’s about maintaining them," said James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.
Bedford said it would be an "understatement" to say the past few weeks have been a lot of work, which comes with stress and anxiety, and teachers with children at home face additional challenges. MTS has been encouraging teachers to collaborate and share ideas for distance learning planning.
"We have to remember these are trained teaching professionals, and I suspect the longer we’re doing this, the better we’re going to become at doing it," said Bedford. The MTS represents approximately 16,000 teachers in the province.
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A mother of two, Kimberley Robinson recently took on a teaching role of her own to supplement her Grade 1 student’s learning. She said Tuesday the indefinite closures have left her worried about whether her eldest will be ready when autumn comes around.
"I didn't take the homeschooling as seriously as I probably should have initially," she said, over the phone from Brandon.
Robinson said the next course of action for her family is to set a more strict day-to-day learning routine.
— with files from Larry Kusch and Malak Abas
Maggie Macintosh Reporter
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.
All high school athletics for the rest of the school year have been cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Provincial championships for badminton, baseball, fast pitch soccer and track and field have been scrapped.
Other activities such as lacrosse, rubgy and ultimate have also been cancelled, and the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association has postponed its hall of fame induction and luncheon to a later date. It was scheduled for May 9.