For the second year in a row, about half of Manitoba’s K-12 students will finish the school year at their kitchen tables rather than classroom desks — much to the dismay of students and parents.
Schools in Winnipeg, Brandon, and Red River Valley and Garden Valley divisions will continue learning remotely throughout June, with the exception of limited in-person visits, the province announced Thursday.
During an afternoon news conference, Education Minister Cliff Cullen said students will have the option to return to class in groups of no more than six at a time to meet with teachers and participate in final assessments, starting June 14.
The set-up will mirror the limited return of learners that occurred in schools after the first COVID-19 lockdown in June 2020.
"While this is not the end of the year we all would’ve wanted, we still have half of Manitoba schools with students attending regularly. These schools will continue to operate with the additional measures already in place," Cullen told reporters.
The minister noted schools in remote learning areas have approximately 20 per cent attendance at present, as they accommodate the children of critical service workers, students with additional needs, and at-risk youth.
Provincial data show 397 schools, Collège Jeanne-Sauvé included, are currently fully in remote learning mode.
"To finish off in remote learning with barely even a graduation ceremony, it just doesn’t feel like it’s enough. I wish it could just be normal," said Muhammad Abdullah, a Grade 12 student at the French immersion high school in Winnipeg.
Muhammad, 17, and his peers have been studying at home for a month already, owing to rising cases in the school and community at large.
More than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases in students and school staff have been reported in the last month alone; since the school year began, there have been 4,350 such cases in total. These cases might have been contracted at school, home, or in the community.
"(Public health officials) love school. School is very important for kids, for development, for mental health, for social development, for education — so we don’t take a decision like this lightly," said Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief provincial public health officer, who accompanied Cullen to make the latest education announcement.
Atwal said case counts are starting to drop, but test positivity rates and the number of cases in hospital and intensive care units is still far too high. School-aged children make up 21 per cent of all current cases in Manitoba, he added.
Renée Cable said her youngest child cried when she learned she would not get to go back to school full-time for Grade 2.
While Cable said her children have forgotten some of their French skills, as a result of the inability to be fully immersed in the immersion program virtually in a household where not everyone is fluent, she is most concerned about the social isolation of distance education.
"The frustration for us is, it feels like we traded keeping shopping malls open for our kids to be going to school," Cable said, adding stricter public health measures could have been in place sooner to slow community spread during the third wave.
Also Thursday, public health officials announced students of all levels in Morden will move to remote learning as of Monday, until at least June 21. The change was recommended as case counts are elevated in the community, according to a provincial release.
"Everybody hopes it’s the last remote learning period," said James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society. "It’s not that remote learning isn’t successful, it’s just that remote learning isn’t successful for everybody."
Bedford said teachers are still trying to wrap their minds around the decision-making process and threshold for schools to pivot to remote models.
As Muhammad finishes off his high school career, he said he will try to remain positive and optimistic, and focus on the few benefits of remote learning — such as being able to spend more time with family.
"Even though most of us kids might not be happy, our safety is the priority of the government and our own priority," added the Grade 12 student, who has already had one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
Cullen did not provide specific convocation guidelines Thursday, encouraging instead parents, teachers and administrators to find creative ways to mark the occasion for the Class of 2021.
Both he and Atwal suggested the upcoming back-to-school season could look closer to normal as vaccination rates rise.
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.