With five weeks left until the school year starts, leaders are tailoring their pandemic plans to the province’s new guidelines — with everything from supplied masks to community centre classrooms up for consideration.
Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said this week it’s inevitable there will be variance between schools, given their unique spaces and student populations, but all students will have an opportunity to learn in physical classrooms starting Sept. 8.
For K-8 students and students with disabilities, classroom learning will be full-time. High schoolers will be able to learn in school for at least two days per week, a minimum requirement that gives populated schools room to ensure physical distancing is possible.
Inside the Seven Oaks School Division, superintendent Brian O’Leary said Friday the tentative plan is to have students in crowded high schools attend in-person classes every other day. If classes are split in half, likely alphabetically, students at home will be required to tune-in to live classes; in preparation, the north Winnipeg division has already installed webcams in classrooms.
"Too many high school students were becoming nocturnal beings," O’Leary said. During the spring remote learning period, high schoolers often submitted assignments overnight, he said.
There will be discussions in the coming weeks about mask-wearing and whether they'll supply older students with masks at Garden City Collegiate, Maples Collegiate, West Kildonan Collegiate, Maples Met School and Seven Oaks Met School, O'Leary said.
Divisions are expected to present their individual designs by mid-August.
"It’s daunting, but it’s also exciting to think that we are going to be in a position to see students and teachers come back to school and carry on with learning in a school environment," said Sandy Nemeth, chairwoman of the Louis Riel School Division.
Students in the southeast Winnipeg division can expect an emphasis on outdoor and land-based learning, said superintendent Christian Michalik. The curriculum is being designed or more outdoor lessons with infrastructure, such as trees and berms, to facilitate it.
At schools like Collège Jeanne-Sauvé, with forested areas nearby, there will be opportunities for "forest school," otherwise known as purposeful learning in natural spaces, he said.
Other options include using community centres as schools and transferring students from crowded schools to emptier, neighbouring ones. Local families can expect more surveys throughout August on just about everything, Michalik said.
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As divisions finalize plans, one inclusive education expert is asking them to consider the needs of their most vulnerable learners.
"We need to be thinking about our students with special education needs and their right to an education," said Nadine Bartlett, an instructor at the University of Manitoba. "Having been away for so long, they’re going to need transition supports."
Bartlett has been surveying dozens of families of students with disabilities about their pandemic learning experiences in recent weeks.
With the potential for future learning during a lockdown, there should be guidelines set for a minimum number of direct-contact hours between teachers and students weekly, she said, and plans in place for ongoing clinician services if school is disrupted again.
Maggie Macintosh Reporter
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.
Province-wide, the price-tag on pandemic schooling remains uncertain. Divisions saved a total of $48-million during the remote learning period, owing to utility, bus fuel, salary and special programming savings — but many have already dug into those savings as they plan for the fall.
“The amount of money they have saved won’t go very far,” said Rick Peschel, who oversees the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Manitoba school division sector.
Peschel said Friday the union, which represents approximately 5,000 Manitoba school support staff — including secretaries, bus drivers and librarians — i s worried divisions will not have enough to meet additional staffing costs or extended hours.
Bus drivers, for instance, will have to be compensated if they are assigned to do thorough cleaning after each run, he added.
While in-person classes were suspended, the Winnipeg School Division saved $9 million, some of which has already gone towards purchasing suicide alertness training and trauma-informed classroom training for thousands of staff members.
Spokeswoman Radean Carter said the province's largest division foresees added costs of cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer, technology for ongoing distance learning, and staffing costs; additional substitute teachers, custodians and educational assistants will be required.
Meantime, at the Seven Oaks School Division, Superintendent Brian O'Leary said salary settlements are likely to cost the division more than COVID-19-related changes. Back-pay will have to be distributed this year, O'Leary said, in part, as a result of the overturn of Bill 28, which froze public sector wages for two years.