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Support for a prolonged winter break for Manitoba students is gaining traction as health officials and educators consider ways to stem the spread of COVID-19 after the holiday season.

The provincial government is considering extending the traditional break — scheduled for Dec. 19 to Jan. 3 — for as long as two weeks for the health and safety of kindergarten to Grade 12 students and staff. Premier Brian Pallister hinted Tuesday the idea of a longer vacation has been discussed, but he stopped short of calling it a done deal.

The premier didn’t indicate how much additional time students may be away from school, although he acknowledged that parents would have to be given advanced warning.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, said closing schools for a longer period of time in the new year could be a way to further decrease community transmission.

"We know that over the holiday break we're going to have strong messaging that there can't be a lot of gathering. We know it's going to be challenging for people and probably there will be gatherings that occur," he said. "So, giving an extended time after that break may be able to give us an incubation period after a large amount of gathering and maybe offset some of that."

Brian O'Leary, superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division, said if a protracted break is viewed by health experts as a way to reduce the spread, it's a positive step.

"I'm generally a proponent of kids being at school as much as possible. But if it's something that enables us to have closer to a full year of school, it's something worth considering," he said. "I think schools have fared quite well to this point, in spite of rather improbable odds. We haven't seen significant transmission in schools. Our attendance is still quite healthy, all things considered."

The parent of a student in the Louis Riel School Division said Tuesday an extended break is appropriate given the high stress level students and staff have faced in recent months.

"Both the kids and teachers need a bit of a breather," said Sherri Romas, whose seven-year-old daughter, Rowynn, is in Grade 2 at Island Lakes Community School. "The school has done an amazing job, but my daughter is still coming into contact with people all day long. There's also the fact teachers just need a longer break. They are going through something so stressful. I know one of the teachers has been tested and is off, and the other teachers are having to fill in the gaps, plus do their own classes."

Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association, said his group hasn't discussed extending the holiday break with the province, but notes the rationale for a longer break is two-fold.

"The idea of limiting the movement of people... by having an extended break and having less movement for an extended period of time, I think it's reasonable to think that would have an impact on the asymptomatic transmission of the virus," said Campbell. "On the other side of that conversation is the awareness school boards have that staff in education in this province — right from the front lines in schools to the senior administration in school divisions — are absolutely maxed-out during this pandemic.

"You take those considerations and weigh them against the consensus today that the best place for students is in schools. When you consider all those realities, it's certainly something we can talk about."

Campbell said with many teachers either off sick or isolating, staffing is a major issue.

The province was short of substitute teachers before the health crisis began in the spring, so "you can imagine with all the variables around isolation and awareness, and the strong urging that if you're sick you should stay home, that shortage has been exacerbated by the pandemic," he said.

Education students who need practical experience, and retired teachers, have been recruited to help fill holes, while limited teacher permits are being granted so that even individuals without a post-secondary degree in education may assist in cases where there just aren't enough teachers.

"For school boards, it's not about a shortage of funding, it's about a shortage of people," Campbell said. "There are hundreds of postings (on the association portal) to help our member boards with recruitment. There is money to pay for people... the concern is there aren't enough applicants."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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