April 7, 2020

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School trustees back temporary closures

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Manitoba public school officials are on board with temporary closures, and a buffer week beforehand, that will allow teachers and parents time to prepare for an extra-long spring break in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen announced Friday the province intends to suspend K-12 classes for three weeks, effective March 23, out of "an abundance of caution."

Alongside the premier, health minister and the province’s top public health official, Goertzen stressed the announcement gives parents and teachers time to make accommodations: including child care for the former and, for the latter, preparing lots of homework.

"The buffer week makes an awful lot of sense. I’d feel really concerned if we were giving parents noticed at 3:30 (Friday) that there wasn’t going to be school for their kids Monday morning," said Brian O’Leary, superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg.

"I don’t think there was much risk to students if they came to the school, but anything that reduces social contact is going to slow the spread of the virus."

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen announces that Manitoba's public schools will be closed for three weeks, starting March 23, as a proactive measure to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus Friday afternoon at the Manitoba.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen announces that Manitoba's public schools will be closed for three weeks, starting March 23, as a proactive measure to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus Friday afternoon at the Manitoba.

Following the media briefing, Goertzen held a conference call with education officials across the province to notify them of the latest developments.

Seconds after hanging up, Alain Laberge with the Division scolaire franco-manitobaine told the Free Press he is relieved the province is handing out clear directions, so all divisions can act in unity.

"It’s better to do it sooner rather than later," Laberge said, adding teachers will be able to create distance education plans next week, in advance of the closures. As for families, he said the hope is they will be able to make child-care arrangements.

Lack of anxiety

Universities and colleges across Manitoba have made moves to close their doors or move classes entirely online, but some students say they’re still not anxious about coming to campus.

Red River College and Brandon University are set to close up campus for the next week, and both the Universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg have suspended all in-person classes for the rest of the term.

Meanwhile, the U of M campus remained relatively full Friday, with many students going to what would be their final class before coursework was moved to an online-only structure.

Universities and colleges across Manitoba have made moves to close their doors or move classes entirely online, but some students say they’re still not anxious about coming to campus.

Red River College and Brandon University are set to close up campus for the next week, and both the Universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg have suspended all in-person classes for the rest of the term.

Meanwhile, the U of M campus remained relatively full Friday, with many students going to what would be their final class before coursework was moved to an online-only structure.

Immad Hasnain, a business student, said he wasn’t concerned about the spread of novel coronavirus yet.

“I’m not sure if (COVID-19) has affected that much in Winnipeg, so far,” he said. “I could see them closing it down, but I’m not sure now’s the best time. If it gets worse, then yeah.

“There’s only been very few cases, so I’m not very worried about it.”

Hasnain said he will continue to come to campus unless it is reported a case has been diagnosed within the university community.

Architecture student Braden Goodall said his work as a T.A. and grader had brought him to campus, and planned to continue working on campus later in the day.

Goodall said he would wait and see how things play out within the next few days before deciding whether or not to continue coming to campus.

“To me, the situation doesn’t seem that desperate yet, and I know it’s supposed to be preventative,” he said.

Julieth Mangu, a mathematics student, said even if her classes were all online, her anxiety about coming to campus likely won’t increase. “Some, yeah, but not really,” he said.

The U of M currently hosts 29,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff.

— Malak Abas

For the time being, child-care centres in schools will continue to operate. Teachers and school staff will also continue to work, despite the impromptu class suspensions, Goertzen told reporters. The minister added teachers will engage in prep work for satellite lessons and the students’ return; facility staff will engage in activities such as additional maintenance.

On the subject of a possible school year extension, Goertzen said he's hopeful the two extra weeks off won't mean students will stay in class later in the summer.

"Our hope is that we can make that up. It's a little bit different depending on how old you are and what grade you're in, but our officials are looking at contingency plans to ensure we can either compress the time or to see if there's other alternatives," he said.

The latest announcement came hours after Dr. Brent Roussin, the province's chief public health officer, held a morning news conference, during which he had yet to recommend schools close in Manitoba. He cited impacts on the workforce, no confirmed community transmission cases reported, and the fact children would likely crowd in locations outside school.

Roussin said during the second meeting, he changed his mind and was recommending closures begin March 23 after consideration of the steps other jurisdictions are taking.

Signs inside of the University of Winnipeg Friday announcing cancellations of lectures and classes due in part of the COVID-19 outbreak.

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Signs inside of the University of Winnipeg Friday announcing cancellations of lectures and classes due in part of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Ontario has directed all publicly-funded schools to close for three weeks. A number of Quebec school boards have already closed their doors. As well, B.C. and Nova Scotia institutes are extending spring breaks.

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society voiced support for latest the updated decision Friday.

MTS president James Bedford called the announcement a positive, proactive step: "The safety of the students in our classrooms is paramount in the minds of all of our members."

He noted teachers have been taking directives from the province to promote health, but not all have been able to distance desks — as per the directive — because some classes don't have single, movable desks.

Provincial health officials have continuously asked Manitobans to wash their hands thoroughly, stay home from work or school if they’re sick, and practice social distancing. Roussin has also suggested schools rearrange desks to distance students.

Province-wide, divisions continue to promote sanitation and social distancing however they can — from cancelling local sporting events to international trips. First Nations schools have also shuttered out of precaution.

The Winnipeg School Division still plans to run its March 21 byelection, with the City of Winnipeg stocking hand sanitizer at the voting site.

"Our schools and our communities remain safe, we just need to take a few extra precautions in the basics of personal distancing and hand hygiene," said board chairman Chris Broughton.

Goertzen said Friday the province had yet to consider delaying the release of the education review in light of the latest developments.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

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.

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