Inner-city and north Winnipeg students could be the first to return to classrooms this summer — albeit, in emptier spaces with strict hand-washing protocols.

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Inner-city and north Winnipeg students could be the first to return to classrooms this summer — albeit, in emptier spaces with strict hand-washing protocols.

Administrators across the city are drawing up plans for social-distancing-style learning, in order to tackle the gaps caused by COVID-19 disruptions.

The Seven Oaks School Division has announced it will invite students back in groups no larger than 10 or 16, depending on the program, in the coming months. Educational camps for students in the city core are in the works.

"What we’ve all seen in the education system is that (COVID) has really exacerbated the inequalities that exist in society," said Matt Henderson, assistant superintendent of curriculum and programs at Seven Oaks.

Since the final bell rang on March 20, teachers have raised concerns about how pandemic-mandated class suspensions could stunt learning for students who don’t have access to reliable internet or parental support, among barriers and distractions at home.

Seven Oaks, which has almost 12,000 students, wants to provide recovery learning and respite for families in need as soon as possible, Henderson said.

The division is offering enrichment opportunities for students from pre-school to Grade 12. The plan includes youth day camps that focus on outdoor activities, and small summer classes at the spacious Garden City Collegiate and Maples Collegiate campuses.

As per the province’s reopening plan, day camps are allowed to operate with a maximum of 16 children per site and only if they can maintain physical distancing of at least two metres, "except for brief exchanges."

Public health officials will allow a "limited use" of schools for such programs, the province confirmed Friday. Schools will make decisions based on need, preparedness and operational capacity, the province said.

The announcement is welcome news to educators worried about what’s being called "COVID learning loss," the extension of the summer learning-loss phenomenon; a "summer slide" of learning among students whose families can’t afford camps or museum trips to keep children’s brains active during the vacation time. The phenomenon has been well-documented over the last century.

Studies indicate underprivileged students can lose the equivalent of one month’s worth of school-year learning, with numeracy skills slipping the furthest.

This reality is well-known to Strini Reddy, a retired educator who co-founded the Community School Investigators Summer Learning Program in 2005 to keep Winnipeg students learning year-round.

The free camp, which runs from 15 inner-city schools for five weeks, includes literacy lessons, field trips and healthy meals. The province foots the bill for the $1.3-million program.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Winnipeg is awaiting confirmation to move forward with the program this year, but even if it can operate, it will reach far fewer students than usual.

Group president Ron Brown said they plan to split the day in half to host 32 students at each site, nearly 50 per cent less than in 2019.

No matter the size, Reddy said this year is more important than ever to run the program and others like it.

"We can’t afford to have these children lose ground. It’s not only losing ground academically, they become discouraged — and that is really not acceptable," he said.

Meantime, Cheryl James, a mother of four in the inner city, said she’s uncertain she would feel comfortable sending her children to the camp, even though they loved it last year.

"My son said he would have a hard time to keep his distance from his friends. He’s seven," said James, adding one of her daughters is "a hugger."

In the current COVID-19 response phase, day camps must provide screening, bar youth with symptoms from attending and undertake strict sanitation procedures. Sites must also have separate exits, staggered drop-offs and avoid contact with other groups during the day.

Techniques to be used this summer, including promoting outdoor learning and play, will likely find their way into schools come fall, said Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association.

While Campbell said there’s a possibility classes may not resume in September, schools continue to plan for the scheduled 2020-21 start date.

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh

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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