Manitoba Education is leaning towards a temporary period of remote learning for K-12 students in early 2021, should COVID-19 case counts remain high in the coming weeks.
Sources have told the Free Press the department hinted about its plans during a meeting with school board superintendents Thursday afternoon.
Among the call-in conference agenda items were the status of both the winter break and schools’ levels on the pandemic response system.
During the meeting, the province suggested it is considering moving schools to the most severe level on the system — critical (code red) — for a minimum of two weeks, starting as early as Jan. 4, to ensure widespread distance learning.
Sources said Manitoba Education indicated the department doesn't favour extending the upcoming break — which is scheduled for Dec. 19 to Jan. 4, but the province’s top doctor, will have the final say.
If schools enter the critical phase in the new year, there would be no need for an extended closure of schools to reduce community transmission since the majority of students would be learning at home.
Except for Steinbach-area schools, which entered the most severe level on the response system earlier this week, all classrooms in Manitoba remain in the restricted (code orange) phase.
That means the majority of the upwards of 210,000 learners in the province continue to attend in-person classes, which have been reorganized to emphasize two metres of physical distancing between pupils.
In code red, remote learning becomes universal for all students — although critical service workers’ children in K-6, and older students with disabilities, may access supervision at school to complete their remote work, be it online or paper packages.
A downgrade in code for all schools would be an extreme move, given both Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen and Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, have repeatedly said schools are the best environments for student learning and well-being.
When the province announced last week that the Hanover School Division and surrounding schools were to enter code red as of Nov. 24, officials indicated it was a precautionary measure to address a skyrocketing test positivity rate in the region (40 per cent).
Principal Emery Plett said the transition from orange to red has gone fairly smoothly at Steinbach Christian School, one of 28 schools affected by the announcement. That is, in part, because of the school’s experience with learning disruptions in the spring, Plett said.
His advice for other administrators who might experience the same change in coming weeks?
"Make plans, but be flexible, and make sure you’re supporting your teachers as they work at making the transition," said Plett, whose K-12 school is attended by 317 students — including the son of the education minister.
Both the Manitoba Teachers’ Society and Manitoba School Boards Association declined to comment on specifics about what sources told the Free Press was discussed in the Thursday meeting.
School board association president Alan Campbell was on the call.
"The position of school boards has always been clear," Campbell said, "whether it’s an extended break or a move to code red or whatever it may be, when child care is going to become a consideration because kids aren’t in school, the earlier (the announcement), the better."
A spokesperson for Manitoba Education said in a statement the province is monitoring the situation closely and no final decision has been made about an extended winter break.
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.