A record number of COVID-19 outbreaks in classrooms is raising parent pulses across the province as they await stricter measures to keep students and staff safe.

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A record number of COVID-19 outbreaks in classrooms is raising parent pulses across the province as they await stricter measures to keep students and staff safe.

Since Labour Day, there have been outbreaks in a dozen Manitoba learning facilities. In all of the 2020-21 academic year, there were 11 such clusters that sparked panic among parents and forced students to learn remotely.

"We’ve surpassed the total number of outbreaks in mid-November than we had all of last year. What are we going to do to make sure we keep our schools open?" said Lauren Hope, a parent and teacher in Winnipeg who founded Safe September MB.

Meantime, the organizer of a crowdsourcing project that tracks cases in schools is being overwhelmed by exposure submissions.

That's a warning sign that it is time to act proactively before schools are required to close their doors again, Hope said.

Whether that means providing rapid testing for families in hot spots or making vaccines mandatory for eligible youths to participate in extracurricular activities, more measures are needed to avoid a repeat of the third-wave disaster in the province last spring, she said.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Brandon Burley has faced no shortage of backlash from constituents with anti-mask, anti-vaccine and anti-government views who vehemently oppose his outspokenness in favour of immunization and following public-health orders.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES

Brandon Burley has faced no shortage of backlash from constituents with anti-mask, anti-vaccine and anti-government views who vehemently oppose his outspokenness in favour of immunization and following public-health orders.

The sheer volume of exposure letters from École Morden Middle School that landed in Morden Mayor Brandon Burley’s mailbox Monday led him to question whether his email was glitching. When the father of four received two additional letters Tuesday morning — bringing the count to about a dozen notices — he texted his wife: "When do we pull our kids?"

"We certainly haven’t recovered from the last round of COVID," said Burley, who has two daughters enrolled in junior high in Morden.

Between his lived experience with the virus, as well as his concerns about low vaccine uptake and "relatively poor adherence to public-health measures" in his community, he said the rising numbers of school cases worry him.

Burley has faced no shortage of backlash from constituents with anti-mask, anti-vaccine and anti-government views who vehemently oppose his outspokenness in favour of immunization and following public-health orders.

"It’s a bit of a shame that our teachers and administrators and principals are the line of defence here (in enforcing rules around mask-wearing and staying home when sick) — and they’ve done an admirable job," he said. "But there’s only so much you can do if you can’t get the co-operation of the region."

A handful of teachers who work in schools in the twin cities of Morden and Winkler have disclosed concerns to the Free Press about pupils frequently showing up with symptoms, families' reluctance to get tested and significant absences in recent weeks.

"We’ve surpassed the total number of outbreaks in mid–November than we had all of last year." – Lauren Hope, founder of Safe September MB

One teacher-parent in the Winkler-area said multiple students with symptoms arrive daily only to be sent home. Every now and then, talkative elementary schoolers inform her that their parents gave them medicine in the morning to feel better, she said.

"It’s very common for classrooms to be missing anywhere from five to nine kids right now," said the teacher. "It’s gone too far out of control for anything else (but a break) to work. That is the only solution that I see: a short remote period to get our footing back."

The exhausted teacher said it is not uncommon for educators to be called "sheep" by defiant children whose families do not believe in masks or vaccines.

A parent in Morden, who is self-isolating with a middle schooler after the two tested positive for the virus, in the wake of exposure at school, echoed frustrations about hostility directed towards health measures in the region and the minimal enforcement of orders.

"The schools are trying, but it’s a losing battle," said the parent, who is convinced their family contracted the virus from in-school transmission — given details their child has provided about peers showing up to school with symptoms.

Notably, the school has not been deemed an outbreak site. A provincial spokesperson indicated the cases have not met the outbreak definition, which requires evidence of in-school transmission.

“It’s gone too far out of control for anything else (but a break) to work. That is the only solution that I see: a short remote period to get our footing back.” – Winkler teacher

Adding to the parent’s frustration is the fact schools no longer have the same decision-making power that allowed them to make quick calls about sending classes home for remote learning last year.

Throughout 2020-21, school leaders could make a decision to move to remote learning for one to two days upon notification of a positive case to allow for an investigation. Schools must now seek public health approval to make such a move.

The approach was adjusted because many cases did not result in further transmission at school, quick closures disrupted learning and affected mental health, and there are numerous layered preventative measures in schools this year, including the ability for older pupils to get vaccinated, according to a provincial spokesperson.

"What we want to do is create the safest environment for our kids and our staff. The more times we have to ask for permission, the less responsive we can be in the moment," said Stephen Ross, superintendent of the Western School Division in Morden.

At the same time, Ross said the setup is sufficient and there haven't been any confirmed cases of in-school transmission.

“What we want to do is create the safest environment for our kids and our staff. The more times we have to ask for permission, the less responsive we can be in the moment,” – Stephen Ross, superintendent of the Western School Division in Morden

As far as Ross is concerned, there is no reason to remove kids from the ideal learning environment: a classroom with a qualified teacher and peers, which he said is best both for student and staff mental health.

Upwards of 900 cases of the virus have been found to be connected to schools in the province since the start of September

The medical lead on the vaccine-implementation task force recently indicated kids under the age of 12 made up about one-third of cases overall in Manitoba.

In an email Tuesday, Education Minister Cliff Cullen said provincial officials continue to monitor the situation and focus efforts to keep schools safe and open.

"Shifts to remote learning are directed by public health officials based on risk assessment," said Cullen, adding the outbreak definition has changed and as such, has modified the number of outbreaks.

"We appreciate the efforts schools are taking to implement public health measures and keep students and staff safe." 

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

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.