Manitoba is padding the end of the winter break for K-12 students in a bid to buy time while public health officials assess the risk of the Omicron variant and how best to resume learning in the new year.
On Wednesday — the last day of school before upwards of 200,000 students go on vacation — Education Minister Cliff Cullen announced the return-to-school date will be Jan. 10.
Most students were originally scheduled to resume in-person learning Jan. 6, after a two-week-long break.
"Buying ourselves some time is critical in this fight," Cullen said during an afternoon news conference held via Zoom.
"This will buy time for us to get vaccinated. It will buy us time to make sure that we get rapid tests into all the hands of those who want to use rapid tests, and just buy us more time to get prepared for, hopefully, a safe return to schools come January."
School staff will still be expected to report to work Thursday and Friday for a mix of professional development and to prepare for instruction, however it may be delivered.
Manitoba Education expects school divisions to be prepared with contingency plans for both code orange and red on the province’s pandemic response system. The latter involves universal remote learning for all but the young children of essential workers.
Cullen said public health will ultimately make a call about what classes in early 2022 look like by taking into account data about health-care capacity, the impact of the new variant and the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against Omicron, among other things.
He could not say Wednesday when the public can expect an update, although the minister insisted there will be as much advance notice given as possible.
“This will buy time for us to get vaccinated. It will buy us time to make sure that we get rapid tests into all the hands of those who want to use rapid tests, and just buy us more time to get prepared for, hopefully, a safe return to schools come January.” — Manitoba education minister Cliff Cullen
While schools will be closed to the public for K-12 learning — in turn, requiring families to scramble to find child care, the province indicated daycares will remain open for children under age 12.
Diana Metrik said the child care sector was not consulted about the decision, which came as a surprise to her and her colleagues at Earl Grey Children’s Centre in Winnipeg.
"If the goal of this winter break extension was to provide a circuit breaker (in response to) the increased amount of cases, then there’s absolutely no sense to bring the same children that go to the school, to bring them to daycare," said Metrik, assistant director of the centre based out of Earl Grey School.
"We already are struggling with staffing. There’s currently about 70 ads on the Manitoba Child Care Association job opportunities board."
Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew echoed the concerns of child care centre operators during a scrum with reporters.
"What considerations and preparations are being made to keep them, their workers and their children and families safe? We really need to see much more support offered to the child care centres," said Kinew.
Both the Manitoba Teachers’ Society and Manitoba School Boards Association are in support of the decision to extend the break by four days, including a weekend.
“What considerations and preparations are being made to keep them, their workers and their children and families safe? We really need to see much more support offered to the child care centres." — Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew
"There will be a small sigh of relief that at least we know that, if necessary, there will be a bit of preparation time in-school or at work in the beginning of January in case we need to pivot," said James Bedford, MTS president.
While Bedford said schools are far better positioned to go remote now than they were in March 2020, he indicated access to technology and high-speed internet remain key barriers to student participation.
Despite the late announcement, Alan Campbell, president of the school boards’ association, said he is hopeful students, families and front-line education staff will now be able to take a moment to rest over the holidays.
Campbell said it is his understanding every division will be receiving shipments of rapid test kits to ease anxieties about Omicron.
As of Wednesday, rapid tests have been shipped to 17 of Manitoba’s 37 public school divisions and a total of 63 schools located in First Nations and northern communities.
The Division scolaire franco-manitobaine team received approximately 16,000 tests in bulk late Tuesday.
In order to package them into kits of five and distribute those to each francophone elementary school in Manitoba before the final bell rang before vacation, superintendent Alain Laberge said division staffers were on the task at 6:30 a.m.
"It takes a village to protect a village," he said.
— with files from Carol Sanders
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.