Stress management was the informal lesson of the day Monday, as schools across the province reopened for face-to-face learning in spite of a steady incline in highly infectious COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations.
This week marks the return of in-class learning in 2022 for the majority of Manitoba children and youth, who are coming off an extended winter break and week-long remote learning period.
Before the morning bell rang at Carpathia School in Winnipeg, James Atem, a father of four, expressed hesitancy about his drop-off decision. "I don’t think it’s safe," Atem said. "But… I have no choice."
With Omicron cases continuing to surge amid the pandemic’s fourth wave, the province has mandated the use of medical masks among education workers and downgraded K-12 buildings to restricted (code orange) on its pandemic response system, in turn promoting stricter physical distancing in schools.
“I need them to participate in the school, personally. It is hard to let them stay at home. English is our second language, so it’s very hard to teach the kids. It’s hard for me to support them." — James Atem
Sports tournaments and overnight trips have been cancelled, although extracurricular activities are still allowed.
Families of students in Grade 6 or below — a cohort not yet eligible for a follow-up dose of COVID-19 vaccine without informed consent — have also been supplied with optional rapid antigen test kits through their schools.
The new precautions do not ease Atem’s fears about sending his youngest to daycare and three school-aged children to Carpathia, an elementary building in the Sir John Franklin neighbourhood.
However, both he and his wife work full-time outside of their home.
"I need them to participate in the school, personally. It is hard to let them stay at home. English is our second language, so it’s very hard to teach the kids. It’s hard for me to support them," said Atem, whose native tongue is Dinka, a Nilotic language spoken in South Sudan.
The father said all he can do now is hope his children do not contract the novel coronavirus at school.
“I just want people to be safe. Our ICUs are already full and 20 people died this weekend from COVID in Manitoba. That shouldn’t be normalized." — Piper Lockhart
Citing the limited new safety protocols and inability to register for ongoing e-learning, teenagers participated in simultaneous protests across the province before lunchtime Monday to make their concerns known.
The student organizers behind the MB Student Walkout for COVID Safety 2022 initiative want the province to provide schools with ample supplies of N95 masks and rapid antigen tests for staff members and students of all ages. They have also called on the government to allow any student to opt-in to remote learning indefinitely to reduce in-person class sizes.
Walkouts were scheduled to take place at more than 95 schools located across Manitoba — from Selkirk to Brandon, Winkler to St. Boniface.
At exactly 11:30 a.m., Piper Lockhart’s phone alarm went off and the device began to buzz in the Grade 11 student’s pocket. The 16-year-old packed up her things and walked out of French class.
"I just want people to be safe. Our ICUs are already full and 20 people died this weekend from COVID in Manitoba. That shouldn’t be normalized," said Piper, who organized the walkout at Collège Louis-Riel in Winnipeg.
“I don’t want to make a bad situation worse, but there’s a lot of very, very worried, concerned members out there. They would really like to have heard some details about how schools are safer today than they could’ve been a week ago and (how safe) they were in December.” — James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society
Piper said she participated in the event in solidarity with front-line teachers (her mother included) and because she wants to be able to do remote learning during this period of widespread community transmission of SARS-CoV-2.
"I don’t want to make a bad situation worse, but there’s a lot of very, very worried, concerned members out there," said James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society. "They would really like to have heard some details about how schools are safer today than they could’ve been a week ago and (how safe) they were in December."
Bedford, who represents upwards of 16,000 public school educators, said the language around moving to code orange — in particular, the requirement students be distanced by two metres "where possible" — has been mixed and frustrating.
School leaders have been reconfiguring buildings since they returned from winter break to reorganize furniture, move desks into multiple rooms, and convert music rooms, gymnasiums and libraries into classrooms.
One high school band teacher in Winnipeg, who spoke to the Free Press on the condition of anonymity, has moved into a gymnasium so more distancing can take place. The educator has purchased his own N95 masks and a CO2 monitor, as well as two portable air filtration units — a $700 expense he is optimistic he will be reimbursed for — in the hopes they will protect his classes.
"I’m boosted and I wear an N95… and I don’t take it off… I even go outside to drink water," the teacher said.
Despite all these steps, he has "a moral quandary" about indoor wind instrument playing, because he is worried about anyone getting sick or bringing the virus home. To work in a school during a pandemic requires a "one-day-at-a-time" mindset, he added.
Tiffany Munro adjusted her five-year-old’s mask before watching him enter Carpathia School for a long-awaited reunion with peers and teachers Monday morning. Donning a mask for a full day of kindergarten, an unthinkable act just two years ago, has become second nature for Maverick, according to his mom.
The mother of two said she is confident in both of her early years sons’ abilities to mask and physical distance, as well as the precautions in place at their school.
"We did the COVID test a couple days ago to make sure they were OK to come back," Munro added, noting negative results solidified their return.
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.