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Return-to-class plan more of a leap of faith

Opinion

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As Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government delivered its much-anticipated and revised plan to reopen schools this fall, there was still one important question left lingering in the air.

Is the provincial government doing everything it can to ensure families and students are safe when they return to in-person education?

The province is certainly doing a lot. The revised protocols released Thursday address a dizzying array of issues that schools, teachers and students will face this fall.

Having said that, the plan as presented falls well short of comprehensive. That is due, in part, to the fact that so many of the finer details are being left to individual school divisions and schools. That makes sense; there is a huge variation in the size, shape and design of individual schools.

But beyond local variants, Manitoba's plan continues to feature alarming quantities of uncertainty and vagueness on some of the biggest and most important issues: such as non-medical face masks. Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, has made non-medical masks "required" (Manitoba-speak for mandatory) on school buses, but only "strongly recommended" when students (grades 5-12) are in class.

Education minister Kelvin Goertzen (left), and Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, spoke to the media about COVID-19 and the re-opening of schools in September. (Mikaela macKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Education minister Kelvin Goertzen (left), and Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, spoke to the media about COVID-19 and the re-opening of schools in September. (Mikaela macKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Why demand that masks be worn in buses but not in class? Echoing current epidemiological thinking, Roussin acknowledges that masks are very helpful in any indoor space where social distancing is compromised.

So, why not just require/mandate masks for older students? Roussin's reluctance defies explanation.

"This has been the approach in Manitoba," Roussin said. "We've made public health recommendations; Manitobans have largely stepped up and followed them."

Although that is fundamentally true, it's not really the issue here. Concerns expressed by many people connected to the public education system involve the need for more clarity and conviction, and perhaps a healthy dose of "better safer than sorry."

School divisions understand the need to go beyond minimum requirements, with some already taking steps to acquire masks and other personal protective equipment on their own and make their use mandatory. The province responded, offering to acquire masks for all divisions and schools. But they wouldn't mandate their use. The hesitation that Roussin and Goertzen are demonstrating is starting to cause concern among the public.

An Angus Reid poll released Thursday showed 40 per cent of Manitobans think pandemic measures have not gone far enough. That is the highest proportion of respondents demanding increased public health measures of any province.

Education minister Kelvin Goertzen delivered the much-anticipated and revised plan to reopen schools this fall. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Education minister Kelvin Goertzen delivered the much-anticipated and revised plan to reopen schools this fall. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The poll results are no doubt the result of two glaring facts about the pandemic in Manitoba.

First, despite a recent surge in confirmed cases, we've got a very low incidence of COVID-19 and would like to keep it that way. Second, we've got a premier who somehow believes he is in an actual race with other provinces on removing social and economic restrictions. Mandating masks runs contrary to that public relations campaign.

There was a time when Manitoba officials did not hesitate to take firm, definitive action to control the virus.

At the outset of the pandemic, Roussin issued unambiguous, strongly worded public health orders to force businesses to close and citizens to remain at home as much as possible. The need for unambiguous, strongly worded public health orders is no less important now than it was then. Maybe more so given the fact that it's not clear yet whether the province's return-to-class plan will work.

Look at the questions about social distancing. Goertzen is confident schools can welcome students to classrooms but there are obvious practical limitations. Consider that when movie theatres reopened across Canada in late July, capacity in individual theatres was reduced by 60 to 80 per cent to ensure a two-metre gap in all directions. Although a classroom isn't the same as a movie theatre, both feature rows of seats that put us in close contact with people in front, behind and on both sides.

What is the capacity of the average classroom if it has to reduce its capacity by up to 80 per cent? We will see.

There was a time when Manitoba officials did not hesitate to take firm, definitive action to control the virus.

There are similar questions about the augmentation of virtual or remote learning.

Last spring's sudden, forced experiment with virtual education revealed that many students, even ones who normally do well in school, struggled with the lack of structure that comes with learning at home. We desperately need a better plan in case the return to school doesn't work out.

Lamentably, there are no firm plans on how to improve virtual learning. Again, we will have to wait and see.

With only three weeks or so until classes resume, this has become less of a plan and more of a leap of faith: reopen schools, identify problems and, using a fail-fast mindset, identify solutions as quickly as possible.

Has the provincial government done all it can to make the return to school as safe as possible? It has done a lot and could do more.

The only thing that is certain is that as Manitobans with school-age children get ready to face the disquiet surrounding this fall's return-to-school plan, we will need fewer strong recommendations and more firm orders.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Friday, August 14, 2020 at 9:32 AM CDT: Corrects that Goertzen said Thursday that some school divisions urged the province to make mask-use mandatory for older students.

1:04 PM: Clarifies school division and provincial response.

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