Editorial

One positive outcome of the coronavirus pandemic is a newfound interest in local government and public policy — even among those unable to vote. On Monday, hundreds of high school students left their classes in a co-ordinated protest against the virus safety protocols — or lack thereof — in place at local schools.

One positive outcome of the coronavirus pandemic is a newfound interest in local government and public policy — even among those unable to vote. On Monday, hundreds of high school students left their classes in a co-ordinated protest against the virus safety protocols — or lack thereof — in place at local schools.

Some students walk out as Manitoba schools resume

Some high school students at College Louis Riel walk out of class in Winnipeg on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. Some students protested the return to school as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise in Manitoba. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Some high school students at College Louis Riel walk out of class in Winnipeg on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. Some students protested the return to school as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise in Manitoba. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Posted: 8:11 PM Jan. 17, 2022

WINNIPEG - Some Manitoba students walked out of classes Monday, the first day back after an extended holiday break, to protest what they said was an unsafe environment as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise.

"Many of them want to be in schools. They want to be in schools, but they want to feel safe,” Piper Lockhart, 16, said about her fellow students.

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The teenage organizers of the MB Student Walkout for COVID Safety expressed concerns for their own well-being during the return to in-person classes this week and anxiety about contracting the virus and passing it on to loved ones. The group called on the province to allow students to enroll in remote learning indefinitely, prioritize access to vaccine boosters for teens, make N95 masks and rapid tests readily available and continue notifying school communities of positive cases.

While parents and caregivers are often asked how they feel about school pandemic policies, it’s rare to hear from the people most affected by in-class mask mandates, desk spacing and learning in congregate settings. Young people have to live the reality that adults create — that government officials create, more specifically — and they are justified in wanting a say in that experience.

Premier Heather Stefanson may be content to tell Manitobans it’s up to them to protect themselves during this wave of the pandemic, but it is an unfair burden to place on children who have to spend their weekdays surrounded by hundreds of other people in buildings with outdated ventilation systems and inadequate public-health oversight. It’s up to adults to create safe learning environments and, thus far, Mrs. Stefanson and her party have not met that responsibility.

Monday’s peaceful protest — which saw an estimated 300 students participate from the Winnipeg School Division alone — drew mixed reaction from the public.

On social media, some people responded by changing their profile pictures in support of the movement, while other keyboard warriors minimized the organizers’ safety concerns and dismissed the event as simply a way for students to skip school.

The latter is steeped in ageism. Why can’t young people have something valuable to say about their own working conditions? This week’s walkout proves that hundreds of teens are indeed paying attention to the public policy decisions that directly affect them.

This week’s walkout proves that hundreds of teens are indeed paying attention to the public policy decisions that directly affect them.

Responses from administrators and government officials were similarly mixed. While representatives from the Winnipeg, Pembina Trails, Louis Riel and River East Transcona school divisions supported the walkout as a way for students to express their opinion, Education Minister Cliff Cullen urged would-be participants to rethink the protest. "We’ve got to get back to some form of normalcy, whatever that may look like," Mr. Cullen told the media.

The fact the provincial government is striving for normalcy during a pandemic surge unlike any we’ve seen before is a learning opportunity for everyone: despite their title, elected public servants don’t always have the public’s best interests in mind.

Not every student wants to return to remote learning, and there are proven mental-health benefits to in-person classes. And yet, the concerns brought up this week are valid and could benefit the entire student population if addressed. It remains to be seen whether the province will respond, but the protesters should be lauded for using their collective voice in a productive way.

The Manitoba school walkout was inspired by similar protests by school-aged kids in New York, California, Colorado and elsewhere. Without voting power, these students are using the tools at their disposal to make their concerns heard. They’re keenly engaged with the democratic process, and lawmakers would do well to afford these future constituents the same attention. This generation, after all, will be casting ballots soon enough.