July 13, 2020

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Back to school anxiety

Teachers union raises alarm about return to classroom instruction

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Empty hallways of Riverbend Community School in northwest Winnipeg.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Empty hallways of Riverbend Community School in northwest Winnipeg.

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Ready or not, Manitoba teachers are expected to resume in-person instruction in a limited capacity starting Monday — despite concerns about sanitizer supply, child-care coverage and screening protocols.

The province made public the next phase of its reopening plan this week, after it unveiled a wide-ranging draft that would allow more businesses to reopen and schools invite students back for limited programming. The official plan’s section on schools doesn’t stray far from the draft.

As of June 1, schools will be open to staff and students — the latter, on an invitation-only basis, for assessments, clinical support and planning for next year in one-on-one and small group settings. No more than 25 people are allowed in each room at a time.

The plan explicitly states that sports, band and other extracurricular activities can resume in schools with social distancing in mind.

Choir and musical theatre activities, however, will not be permitted due to "a higher risk of transmission through singing as compared to speaking."

"All we’ve really said, at a minimum, is we want at least one proactive offer to students and their parents or guardians to come in to meet with the teacher, do an assessment: ‘What does this summer look like? How can we help kids get ready for the fall?’" Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen told the Free Press.

"That is a pretty modest ask, with a pretty good return, I think."

The province approved a limited use of schools earlier this month to allow day camps to operate, although not all divisions took advantage of the loosening of restrictions. Since they are all starting at different points, Goertzen said Thursday, the province has directed them to move "slowly."

"Teachers are really catching their stride with this remote learning; they’ve, quite frankly, taken the kitchen table, the home office, the basement, wherever they’re working from and they’ve turned it into their teaching environment," said Manitoba Teachers’ Society president James Bedford, who represents 15,000 public school teachers.

"Why should they be required to lift up this learning space and transport it into a school?"

The union has been bombarded with concerns from members about everything from hand sanitizer supplies in schools to child-care protocols to the loss of educational assistants. Teachers are anxious, especially since schools have had little time to plan, he said.

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew criticized the Pallister government for its approach in asking divisions to find savings, which resulted in hundreds of Winnipeg educational assistants being laid off, as well as its consultation with teachers.

"The fact that teachers learned about this (partial reopening) through the media basically shows everything that’s wrong with the approach... Educators know their students best and they should really be taking the lead," Kinew said.

Goertzen stood by the decision to reopen schools to a limited extent, noting there are public health directives — including banning people who show symptoms and promoting frequent handwashing. As for sanitizer supplies, he said the province is helping to ensure schools have enough. "I think it would be difficult for the public to understand why potentially 95 per cent of workers can return to their place of work, but somehow, it’s dangerous for teachers to do that," Goertzen said.

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.

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