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The province's decision not to reopen schools in any capacity is being questioned by a child psychologist who says students are falling way behind and may lose a year's worth of learning.
"We’re now going to be talking six months of children out of school," said Jen Theule, an associate professor in school and clinical psychology at the University of Manitoba. "We’re not talking learning loss, we’ll be re-teaching an entire grade."
In-person interactions with teachers and peers are critical in a child’s development, especially for children younger than 10, Theule said.
A mother and expert in children’s mental health and education, she questions why creative ideas for resuming classes are missing from the province's plan.
Premier Brian Pallister has made clear his government has no plan to allow students to return to class before the end of the academic year.
"The intensity of the presence of a large number of kids in a school makes social distancing all but impossible," Pallister said Wednesday, before noting the end of the year is fast approaching.
He made the comments moments after introducing Manitoba's reopening plan, which includes allowing non-essential businesses to reopen next week.
As far as Theule is concerned, there are safe options, and governments across the globe have tested some of them.
In mid-April, Denmark reopened schools with drastic changes to the pre-pandemic routine: class sizes were reduced, students are only allowed to play in small groups and they are required to wash their hands hourly. Danish school employees must prioritize outdoor learning, prevent parents from entering schools and ramp up sanitation.
In the U.S., President Donald Trump has urged states to reopen schools. In rural Idaho, administrators are mulling asking siblings to sit together on school buses, spaced out from other students.
“We have to acknowledge teachers’ expertise. The idea that parents could do this is almost amusing. If all parents could do this, we wouldn't have a public school system.” – Jen Theule, associate professor in school and clinical psychology at the University of Manitoba
Closer to home, Quebec plans to reopen elementary schools in two weeks in areas where there have been few COVID-19 cases. Classes will be capped at 15 students and those who live with people with health conditions will be barred from attending. One Vancouver school has already welcomed back students with "exceptionally high learning needs" to receive face-to-face instruction.
Discussion about any such measures in Manitoba have been secretive, if they have taken place at all.
Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen did not agree to an interview this week. Instead, his office provided a general statement that noted the department is working with stakeholders on the file.
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society did not provide comment on the subject either, redirecting a query to a quote from president James Bedford in a prepared release: "The safety of students and of all education staff is of the utmost priority, and teachers are committed to ensuring that our students continue to learn during these uncertain times."
For parents, common concerns include their children's safety and ability to be asymptomatic carriers, as well as the unknown.
"At least if they had more information at this point then they could prepare," said Brenda Brazeau of the Manitoba Association of Parent Councils. A member of a provincial task force on the COVID-19 education response, Brazeau has yet to hear any discussion about what reopening schools could look like.
Meanwhile, Theule said it's important Manitobans start to consider their options.
"We have to acknowledge teachers’ expertise," she said. "The idea that parents could do this is almost amusing. If all parents could do this, we wouldn't have a public school system."
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.
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