As temperatures drop and administrators search for solutions to cramped schools, students in Louis Riel School Division could soon be learning in tents and church basements.
Public health officials have promoted outdoor education as the safest way to hold classes during the COVID-19 pandemic and educators have listened, with many music lessons, phys-ed courses and other core subjects being taught outside this fall.
On Wednesday, Sage Creek School students could be seen playing in their snowpants during phys-ed while teenagers elsewhere in the division rolled gigantic snowballs on the field outside Collège Béliveau.
“We’ve got to find solutions so that when it really gets cold or very snowy, very wet, very windy, we have alternate locations.” — Christian Michalik, superintendent of the southeast Winnipeg division
The wind chill, however, will inevitably complicate lesson plans — phys-ed, in particular — in the coming months.
Louis Riel’s recess policy, which also applies to outdoor instruction, states that students may be allowed outside for a maximum of 15 minutes when the wind chill reaches -27. If wind chill plunges to -30, students are asked to remain indoors.
"We’ve got to find solutions so that when it really gets cold or very snowy, very wet, very windy, we have alternate locations, so we’ve been problem-solving with schools around that," said Christian Michalik, superintendent of the southeast Winnipeg division, which has an enrolment of more than 15,600 students.
Eighteen of the division’s 32 elementary schools are currently using gymnasiums for instructional purposes to ensure two metres of physical distancing during classes, leaving phys-ed teachers without their usual offices.
Spacing challenges at Sage Creek, École St. Germain and École Henri-Bergeron also pose challenges for elementary music classes at these sites.
Assistant superintendent Marlene Murray said principals at schools with such challenges are now checking in with their neighbours to see about using church basements and community centres for classes in the wintertime. One school is next to a bowling alley, Murray said, adding one option is partnering with the facility to allow students to bowl for phys-ed when the alley is closed to the public.
The division is also awaiting outdoor tent rentals, which Michalik said it ordered after seeing others have success with them; schools in Toronto and Gatineau have been using canopy tents this year.
In Seven Oaks, superintendent Brian O’Leary said he doesn’t foresee space concerns for phys-ed — in part, because the division is already renting out two community clubs, one in the Maples and one in Garden City, during the week.
"It's about dressing for the winter, it’s about accepting that we live in a nordic climate, that we need to find ways to be outdoors and embrace the outdoors, even in winter." ‐ Christian Michalik
Meantime, music educators have pivoted to teaching guitar, keyboard and other low-risk instruments — rather than any in the wind family — and often, the lessons are taking place in school libraries, if not in standard classrooms, O’Leary said.
Starting next week, Pembina Trails schools are also moving music indoors and asking students to don masks with mouth slits and use bell covers.
City-wide, divisions continue to encourage outdoor learning when the weather allows for it, which is nothing new for many teachers, even though the pandemic has placed a spotlight on the practice.
"For some time now, it’s been something I’ve personally promoted and others have as well: the need to be outdoors, not just for physical education, but for learning in general, land-based education," Michalik said.
"It's about dressing for the winter, it’s about accepting that we live in a nordic climate, that we need to find ways to be outdoors and embrace the outdoors, even in winter."
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.