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Division designing back-to-school blueprint

Louis Riel administrators mapping out spaces for safety, considering moving students

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Every property in the Louis Riel School Division has been measured and mapped in an effort to ensure students have the personal space they need to be safe when the bell rings next month.

Managing the mask mandate

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Q: Will the province supply masks for schoolchildren?

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen has said the provincial government will provide "several million dollars" to school divisions to facilitate the purchase of masks.

Plans for distribution vary by division.

Winnipeg School Division expects students and staff to provide their own non-medical masks, which will be included on itemized class-supply lists. However, masks will be available at schools and on division buses, and disposable masks will be given to anyone who develops symptoms while at school.

Louis Riel School Division will provide reusable masks to all staff and students at no charge and will provide non-reusable masks for individuals who arrive without one. Pembina Trails School Division is giving masks to staff and will have a limited number for students who arrive without. Families in that division are being told to purchase non-medical masks with their school supplies.

In St. James-Assiniboia, students in Grades 4 to 12 will be given two reusable masks at no cost, and the division will share its plan to distribute masks prior to the start of school.

Each school division and its back-to-school plan is listed on the Manitoba government website: www.manitoba.ca.

Q: When are masks required and who decides if a student can take off their mask?

Following the provincial government's mandate issued Wednesday, masks will be required for students in Grades 4 to 12, teachers, school staff and visitors when physical distancing of two metres is not possible.

Masks are not required when there is adequate distancing, but divisions are recommending they be worn.

The province is developing resources to help children learn how to safely put on, wear and remove a mask, and is planning to release further instructions on exemptions and exceptions for "specific mask-free time."

Q: What happens when a student shows symptoms at school?

While in class, if a student displays symptoms of COVID-19 staff must isolate the student in a separate room. If one isn't available, the student should be kept two metres away from others. A medical-grade mask will be provided for symptomatic students over the age of two.

Parents will be notified and are expected to pick up their child immediately and call Health Links or their doctor for direction. Children will be able to return to school after their health-care provider or public health has determined it's safe to do so.

Q: What evidence exists that children transmit the virus that causes COVID-19 less often than adults?

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Wednesday children are affected by COVID-19 but are under-represented overall in reported cases and are under-represented in severe outcomes.

"There is some evidence that shows the younger the child, the less likely they are to transmit it widely, but there is some conflicting evidence with that as well," Roussin said. "There's some thoughts that there might be cross protection between the circulating coronaviruses that we see every year that children get very often, but that's just a theory at this point."

— Danielle Da Silva

Division Supt. Christian Michalik said schools are being reorganized — both at the classroom and population levels — to make certain each of the more than 15,000 students returning to class in September are able to maintain a distance of two metres from others while in class.

"It became very clear to us the golden standard we should be trying to achieve is two metres of physical distance... and to design learning from that first principle," Michalik said Thursday.

"We’ve reviewed all of our floor plans carefully... and then went to work."

Manitoba Education is requiring kindergarten to Grade 8 students to attend class full time; secondary students must be at school at least twice a week.

Public health guidelines call for putting students in cohorts and ensuring at least one metre of distance between them during class when a full two metres is not possible.

Michalik said the division is reconfiguring all of its available school spaces and taking a hard look at class lists to reduce numbers in order to achieve the two metres of distance.

In some cases, students across all grades may be relocated to buildings where there is more space available. Michalik said the shuffle will be kept to a minimum and affected families will be consulted.

"We're working to not displace populations of students if we can avoid it and if we have to... we're looking at schools in the same geography," he said. "Proximity matters, and who we decide to go there will also take into account where one lives."

As an example, the school administrator suggested "satellite schools" that would include multiple grades, teachers and support staff could be established in a wing of a neighbouring school.

Michalik said older, established neighbourhoods in the division tend to have schools with available space, while classrooms in new communities, such as Sage Creek, are at capacity.

He acknowledged that arriving at any decisions to shift students and staff will be challenging.

"We're asking a lot of everyone — staff, students, parents — but at the heart of it all is designing learning environments with safety and health top of mind first," he said.

Class sizes wouldn’t be capped, he noted, adding administrators are working on applying the same principles to high schools.

The tack taken by LRSD differs from other metro school divisions, some of which don’t have room to build in two metres of physical distance, particularly for younger students.

Lauren Hope, an organizer with Safe September MB, applauded the Louis Riel division's efforts. The group is petitioning the government for distance-learning options, small class sizes and two metres of distance between students, improved ventilation and additional staff support for Manitoba schools, among other demands.

"Chronic underfunding of our education system has left other divisions scrambling to provide the necessary accommodations for the safe return to school," Hope said.

"Many divisions are struggling with antiquated ventilation systems and overcrowded classrooms."

Michalik said LRSD is planning to hire more teachers, education assistants and custodians to pull off its plan.

"That will be the next hurdle," he said.

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
Reporter

Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.

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