It is, with each passing late-summer day, an issue of increasingly urgent concern for many Manitoba families:
How safe will the province’s schools be for the students, teachers and associated staff tasked with ensuring the "near-normal" return to classes the Pallister government has been touting?
The answer, confoundingly, is that no one seems to know with any certainty.
Despite having offered continual assurances that the return to school in September will be safe and seamless, the province has done little to ensure such will be the case. In fact, with its most recent adjustment of public-health orders and the release of its long-awaited "Safe Return to Schools" plan, the Pallister government has opted for an approach that seems to value "normal" as a higher priority than "cautious" or "safe."
Citing Manitoba’s improved COVID-19 case counts but seemingly ignoring the looming fourth wave driven by the dangerous delta variant, Education Minister Cliff Cullen on Aug. 5 defended the safe-schools plan by stating, "Children returning to full-time in-person learning is another example of a transition to a post-pandemic Manitoba and a closer return to normal life."
Under the provincial plan, masks will be recommended, but will no longer be required. Class cohorts will be eliminated for students beyond Grade 6, and extracurricular activities such as team sports and performing-arts programs will be up and running as they were before the pandemic.
Some restrictions and preventive measures, such as staggered recesses and assigned seating on school buses, will continue, but the province’s clear objective is creating a "just like old times" experience when school resumes on Sept. 7.
Education Minister Cliff Cullen on Aug. 5 defended the safe–schools plan by stating, “Children returning to full–time in–person learning is another example of a transition to a post–pandemic Manitoba and a closer return to normal life.”
As if anticipating the cries of "too much, too soon" that followed the plan’s unveiling, the province did leave latitude for individual school divisions to impose more stringent measures to suit the needs of the students and families they serve. Some have done just that: Seven Oaks and Louis Riel have announced the intention to maintain mask requirements, while trustees in Pembina Trails have gone a step further by asking the province to amend its plan to include a requirement for all staff who are medically able to be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment.
There is, of course, no small irony in the province imposing the burden of setting individual COVID-19 standards on the very divisions it seeks to eliminate completely with its controversial Bill 64 — the Education Modernization Act. Abdicating such a grave responsibility to an entity your proposed legislation deems irrelevant is the stuff of policy-making absurdity.
By basing its safe-schools blueprint on information that does not factor in the delta variant, the province has set in motion a plan that could be woefully outdated by the time the first school bell rings. Deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal revealed on Monday that nearly one-fifth of Manitoba’s new COVID-19 cases since the end of July have involved children under the age of 10; with vaccination limited to those 12 and older, the re-start of "near normal" schooling creates a ripe opportunity for rapid virus spread in an unprotected population.
In several U.S. jurisdictions — some with much lower vaccine uptake than most Canadian regions — where school has already resumed, widespread outbreaks and quarantining of young students have already occurred.
School is, after all, about learning. One can only hope Manitoba’s government and health officials take heed of the lessons offered elsewhere by amending back-to-school plans — including a reconsideration of mask mandates — to ensure they truly are as safe as promised.