A dramatically different first day is on the books for September, as Manitoba school divisions dial in on how to manage classroom demands with pandemic health risks.
Most Winnipeg school divisions released their back-to-school plans Monday. While plans vary, many have kindergarten to Grade 8 students resuming in-class lessons full time Sept. 8, with high school students attending in-class lessons two to three times a week.
Pembina Trails School Division superintendent Ted Fransen said high school students in the Winnipeg south end authority will get a taste of normalcy this fall.
Fransen said the division has devised an academic program that will not require the cohorting of students; rather Pembina Trails’ four high schools will rely on physical distancing and students will attend class just two days out of the six-day school cycle.
"We have found a way to balance having a sound, strong academic program and keeping our students safe," Fransen said Monday. "We wanted to make sure that our students were safe and healthy, while maintaining a robust academic program.
"So by having our high schools divided into thirds, we’re able to have smaller classes at the high school and therefore not required to cohort."
Within the River East-Transcona division, students at schools in northeast Winnipeg will be cohorted and told to follow the "rules of the road" when moving through hallways, but generally will be sat in the same desk throughout the day. High school students will return for "up to five" days of in-class instruction.
The division has directed its schools to have staff move between rooms instead of pupils, and entry and exit times will be staggered and scheduled. Bus transportation within RETSD will be prioritized for those outside the Perimeter Highway or living 2.5 kilometres away from their school.
"Our schools will be ready for Sept. 8, 2020, and we ask that all parents and caregivers prepare now for sick days and look into transportation of their own students," said superintendent Kelly Barkman.
Many school divisions will provide reusable masks to students to wear when physical distancing is not possible. On Monday, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said mandating masks in schools is not off the table.
Manitoba announced 38 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, with the majority linked to known clusters in the Brandon area and in the Southern Health region.
Continued unfavourable virus activity in September could prompt public health to re-evaluate how it goes about reopening schools, Roussin noted.
As is the case with most school divisions in Manitoba, Seven Oaks will only make remote learning available to students who have a doctor’s note advising against a return to class; otherwise, attendance for all students is mandatory.
"That’s one where we’ve basically just gone with the province’s guideline and advice from their reopening plan," superintendent Brian O’Leary said. "It is something that would be case-by-case, but for us, teachers will have a full-time job with the kids who are present in their class.
"We can’t ask teachers to support remote learning and teach a class. They can do one or the other."
The northwest Winnipeg division is endeavouring to keep students cohorted by classroom for early and middle years, and plans to have one metre of distance between desks. Most high school students will attend on alternating days — class sizes are cut in half — and will follow a normal class schedule, keeping two metres of distance from each other as much as possible.
O’Leary said the division is expecting to establish additional classes for early and middle years, and is anticipating new costs for substitute teachers and beefed-up custodial services.
A spokesperson for Safe September Manitoba — a coalition of teachers, parents and community members petitioning the province for remote learning options and smaller class sizes — called the division plans released so far "disappointing."
"Dr. Roussin is continually emphasizing the need for all Manitobans to return to what he calls, ‘the fundamentals,’ — mask use, physical distancing, avoiding prolonged indoor group gatherings — yet this province is proceeding with school reopenings as if the pandemic were over, with few precautions in place," a spokesperson said in a statement.
Winnipeg School Division, the province’s largest, released a hefty 37-page pandemic planning document Monday, detailing its efforts to maintain staff and student health.
All people entering WSD property will be screened for symptoms, and the division recommends hand hygiene stations be placed throughout facilities, locker use be suspended, and water fountains be turned off. Students who eat lunch at school will have to do so at their desk. Additional custodial staff will also be brought on to sanitize high-touch areas and washrooms hourly. Students in high school will return to class to "the greatest extent possible."
The St. James-Assiniboia School Division is taking a reserved approach, with some programming paused for September. School sports, music and choir instruction, practical arts and culinary arts have been put on hold.
The west Winnipeg division has planned for grades 9 to 12 students to attend class on alternate days for the first three weeks of September. Later in the month, students can return to in-class learning every day, "if high schools can effectively timetable and implement physical distancing and the use of cohorts," the division's plan states.
In the short term, SJASD is telling parents to transport their children to school; in September, the division will only transport eligible bus students from the Headingley and Brooklands areas.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.