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Even with back-to-school right around the long-weekend corner, Rhonda Hinther still isn't sure whether she'll send her son to class or try to help him follow his curriculum from home — and she's not alone.
A majority of parents across the province are worried about Manitoba's back-to-school plan and worry the risks of virus transmission will increase as kids return to the classroom, a new poll from Leger and the Free Press found.
"Parents are absolutely concerned; they’re worried about the lack of physical distancing in the classroom, they're worried about class-size numbers, they're worried about their teachers, school staff getting sick and how that's going to be handled," Hinther said in an interview Thursday.
"It's really just a very difficult and frightening time for teachers, for students, for parents, for extended family, for community members who are really worried about what the fallout is going to be."
According to data from Leger's online poll, which received responses from more than 200 parents, 70 per cent of Manitoba parents are worried about their kids going back to school next week.
Households with higher incomes tend to report being less worried about sending their children to school. Of the families with incomes under $60,000, 83 per cent were worried about sending their children back to school compared to 65 per cent of parents with household incomes over $60,000.
The differences are split regionally, too; parents in Winnipeg tend to be more worried about the return to school — with 79 per cent saying they feel worried — compared to 59 per cent in the rest of Manitoba.
Andrew Enns, Leger executive vice-president, said that number has been rising. When the same question was posed in mid-July to a national audience, the percentage of worried parents was in the low 60 per cent range, Enns said Thursday.
The Leger poll, exclusive to the Free Press, surveyed 800 Manitobans aged 18 and older between Aug. 26 and Sept. 1. Of those 800 respondents, 224 are parents with school-aged children.
As a non-probability internet survey, no margin of error is available.
In Hinther's mind, the province's delay in producing an adaptable plan for students and families has contributed to sentiments of both worry and anger among Manitoba's parents.
"They’re very angry with this government, that they're not following the fundamentals, that they had five months to get their act together on a plan that would push back against the spread of COVID and they haven't," Hinther said.
"You don't mess with people's children. You don’t put people’s children in harm's way."
Poll data found Manitobans are split on their feelings towards the government's handling of the situation — 46 per cent think it has been sufficient, while 40 per cent think the province has done a poor job navigating the return to school. More than half, however, are concerned the return to school will increase the risk of infection.
"We want this to be over, and we certainly don’t want to have our kids catch COVID at school and spread that to the school community, further spread it at home," Hinther said.
Despite the simmering concern, Leger's data found most parents will send children back to the school.
Nearly two-thirds of parents report planning to send their kids, higher among high school and middle school parents, while 17 per cent said they would be keeping their kids at home and another 20 per cent, like Hinther, still aren’t sure.
A contributing factor in that decision for many parents is the lack of options presented for at-home learning, she said.
Some families may want online learning while others, especially those without reliable access to internet or digital devices, might prefer workbooks or other tools to help teach kids at home, she suggested. In order to accomodate different forms of in-person, remote and online learning, Hinther said the government needs to hire more educators so teachers aren't overwhelmed.
According to Leger data, 78 per cent of parents want the option to keep their kids home for remote learning and three-quarters want classes to be suspended and shifted to at-home learning if virus cases begin to spike in the community.
With all the uncertainty around remote and in-person learning, however, Manitoba's parents are feeling the impacts on their own careers. More than half of parents reported their own back-to-work plans have been negatively impacted by the back-to-school uncertainty.
"So many of us are fearing that even if we did send our kids and we were able to manage our back-to-work plan, that in two weeks because of this plan the schools could be shut down or our kids could be sick or we're going to have to self-isolate because folks are being exposed," said Hinther.
"There's just too many unknowns in this and it's frightening and its frustrating and its creating unnecessary anxiety."
On Thursday afternoon Hinther, along with Safe September MB, delivered a petition to Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen outlining eight demands for the government to provide a safe and equitable return to school. Parents are asking for smaller class sizes, better remote learning options, mandatory distancing, mask use and hand-washing and access to ventilation or filtration in school buildings.
There were no problems delivering the petition, Hinther said, but she still isn't convinced the government is listening.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.
Updated on Thursday, September 3, 2020 at 7:07 PM CDT: Adds photo
1:03 AM: Adds photo and relates poll
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