They are tired of being worried about COVID-19. They are tired of juggling work, childcare and remote learning demands, while also monitoring a surge in screen-time. They are tired, put simply, of being tired.
School-year statsClick to Expand
● At least 4,607 COVID-19 cases were connected to schools since Sept. 10
● Of the total cases, 3,674 involved students and 933 involved staff
● 556 schools had one or more cases throughout the school year
● Six school outbreaks, announced based on public health discretion and indicating at least two epi-linked COVID-19 cases in a school while allowing for transmission in cohorts — which can include up to 75 students, were declared
Asked about how things were going as the school year came to an end in late June, mother Anna Parenteau was blunt.
"I’m exhausted!" she wrote via message. "I can’t wait for school to be done."
The Milne-Karns and Blum-Paynes echoed the same sentiments, almost word-for-word.
Each family entered the 2020-21 school year with optimism, as well as reservations about their respective plans — whether it involved a home-school bubble, virtual school enrolment or sending a child back to a physical classroom.
Three families make different educational choices during pandemicClick to Expand
Posted: 10:00 AM Sep. 19, 2020
Meet the Milne-Karns, the Parenteaus and the Blum-Paynes.
The Free Press is following these three families to document their experiences in the classroom, with remote learning and home-schooling amid the uncertainty and anxiety of the pandemic.
Ten months later, all of their children ended up in front of a screen, with a virtual sign-off replacing a final school bell to mark the end of an academic year during which uncertainty became the only certainty.
Between Labour Day and June 30, there was a switch in education ministers and more than one change in school downgrades on the pandemic response system.
Not long after students in the Manitoba capital began the year in the caution phase (code yellow), at which point two metres of physical distancing was optional, schools were moved to the restricted level (code orange).
They remained in a shade of orange for the majority of the year, although schools finished in remote learning this summer and all but the youngest students were required to stay home for two weeks after winter break.
Three families deal with unsettling, ever-changing schoolingClick to Expand
Posted: 7:00 PM Nov. 20, 2020
Thousands of families in the Manitoba capital have received the dreaded letter — stamped with a Winnipeg Regional Health Authority logo in the top left-hand corner — since Sept. 8.
“Dear parent/guardian of students at (X) school, Manitoba public health officials advised (X) school today of a confirmed case of COVID-19,” states the template Dr. Heejune Chang, medical officer of health for the region, is required to sign.
As variants of the original strain began appearing in schools and staffing shortages became critical in the spring, owing to so many educators being directed to quarantine, the province announced local schools would be going fully remote.
Mothers Luanne Karn and Heather Milne are in agreement the whirlwind of a year, "felt like 10 years — but 10 minutes at the same time."
For Krystal Payne, the last day of school was yet another reminder of how challenging this year has been for her chatterbox daughter; the nine-year-old was reluctant to tune into a movie screening with her classmates that June afternoon.
"I bet this (report card) is going to be the worst I’ve ever had. I haven’t been doing work very well," said Emby Blum-Payne, who is frank about her frustrations with virtual school.
While Anna Milne-Karn is headed back to the hallways of École Laura Secord School in autumn, the Blum-Paynes and Parenteaus remain undecided about the respective upcoming academic years at École Sacré-Coeur and Isaac Brock School.
Pandemic forces families to be less concerned about their kids' time onlineClick to Expand
Posted: 7:50 PM Jan. 22, 2021
Excessive screen-time was once the common enemy in the Milne-Karn, Parenteau and Blum-Payne households.
But the COVID-19 pandemic and related stay-at-home orders have given each family pause when considering each of their children’s relationships with computers.
What in-person classes will look like in 2021-22 is to be determined in August, although the province has confirmed it will operate a remote-learning hub for students who are medically advised to stay home.
Parents have legitimate concerns around measures in schools, highly infectious variants and the vaccination status of youth — in addition to existing worries about how uncertainty has and continues to impact their kids’ mental health.
"The priority for Carter and his learning is just making sure he’s OK mentally and emotionally, and all that other stuff. (Academic) catch-up is not even a big deal," said father Jason Parenteau, who deems this year a success because all of his kids are healthy and safe.
Now, he and the other families are welcoming summer break with open — and, among all the adults, vaccinated — arms.
Mini-reunion, vaccine relief and time for reflection
On the day of the reunion, Kenny Kennedy awoke his mother at 4 a.m. to ask if they could go see his cousins yet.
It had been seven months since the third grader had played Beyblades with Carter Parenteau. Kenny missed his friend and classmate; the duo had expected to spend all year together in a home-school bubble.
"Do you want to play? I’m bored and lonely, like baloney. Come on screens!" — that was one of many messages exchanged between the two throughout winter and spring, recalled mother Dawnis Kennedy, followed by a laugh.
The cousins met in-person in late June in the Parenteaus’ backyard in Silver Heights for a group interview and homemade slip-and-slide.
For Anna and Jason Parenteau, who are expecting a baby in the fall, things have only gotten more hectic over the last few months. Anna has been managing morning sickness, full-time work, and teaching her fourth grader.
Carter and Kenny connected intermittently with Ojibwe teachers at Isaac Brock School when their peers in class returned home amid disruptions, but much of their education was supplemented by land-based learning and home-school lessons this year.
"Part of me wants to send him back to school in the fall just because I know how much work it is now," said Anna. "But at the same time, I don’t want him to get sick, or get sick and bring that home to the baby either."
As of the last day of school, only students aged 12 and up are eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
After watching his mother, father and 17-year-old brother, Josiah, get fully vaccinated, Carter is impatient to get a shot so he can see friends.
Biology has piqued the nine-year-old’s interest. He and Anna recently did research into vaccination and trials, a project that prompted Carter to question how he could take part in one. Much to his dismay, Anna informed him she did not know who to contact about such a request.
Josiah, meantime, has been passing time helping Jason teach Jiu jitsu online, doing photography, and figuring out next steps after graduating during a global health crisis.
A member of the Class of 2021, he said he will remember senior year by the "missed opportunities" — wrestling season and safe grad were both cancelled outright, mall hangouts with friends were off-limits, and he collected his diploma at a University of Winnipeg Collegiate drive-thru.
His parents marked the occasion by setting up a massive congratulatory lawn sign that is longer than Josiah is tall and organizing a car parade on their street. As guests stopped by to celebrate from their vehicles, some decorated with balloons and signage, Jason delivered hot dogs to vehicle windows.
The school year was by no means ordinary, but Jason said he is grateful for the time he spent with his children on the land. Over the summer months, cultural learning will continue with hunting, fishing and gardening.
"We’ve always had this appreciation for what our families are able to retain with our traditional knowledge and we just keep giving that to our kids, as best as we can." – Jason Parenteau
The Parenteaus are growing Indigenous white corn on their property and when Roseau River First Nation is no longer in lockdown, they plan to visit their family’s abundant garden to tend to everything from watermelons to tobacco plants.
"We had control to go and take them on walks, show them medicines and go fish, and... they got to learn more about ceremony and what it means to be oshkaabewis (ceremonial attendants)," said Jason.
He noted the importance of continuing to celebrate what it means to be Anishinaabe in the face of tragedy, following the recent discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children found near former residential school sites in Canada.
"We’ve always had this appreciation for what our families are able to retain with our traditional knowledge and we just keep giving that to our kids, as best as we can."
Embracing remote life
When the Milne-Karn household reverted to remote learning in the spring, their daughter’s studies, social interactions — and even her spending allowance — went virtual.
Anna Milne-Karn has spent much of her downtime this year designing virtual houses and playing with friends on Roblox, a create-your-own-game sandbox that has skyrocketed in popularity amid COVID-19 lockdowns across the world.
A weekly purchase of in-game currency, Robux, in turn became the perfect reward for every week of Anna’s hard work at remote school. The funds can be used to upgrade an avatar’s clothes, purchase property and buy pets in the online world.
"I wish I bought shares in Roblox before the pandemic because it’s keeping so many parents sane," said Heather Milne during a family interview over FaceTime.
Milne and Luanne Karn were celebrating Mothers’ Day brunch when the province announced that a few days later, their daughter would be required to stay at home and do distance learning, along with tens of thousands of other students in third-wave hotspots.
Only critical service workers could send their children to physical school buildings for what was initially a shutdown until the end of May.
"Anna has developed a lot of independence ‐ a lot, like we’d leave her at the door and she’d go in." – Luanne Karn
While there was a limited reopening for in-person assessments and transition planning in June, Anna’s Grade 3 wrapped up just like Grade 2.
There were mixed feelings about the anticlimactic end of yet another school year in her family’s Wolseley home.
On one hand, there was relief the province was taking action to protect families. On the other hand, there was frustration about the reactive closure that the mothers believe could have been avoided had public health restrictions been introduced earlier to flatten a spike in cases that would result in dozens of patients being transported for care out of province.
"As a teacher, I was really upset when vaccinations were not prioritized for teachers," added Karn, who will trade being her daughter’s personal educational assistant, hallway monitor and national anthem player for work as a remote-learning teacher for students with medical exemptions in 2021-22.
Over the last two months, Anna followed a structured schedule of daily video calls and independent work sessions alongside classmates who were spread out between school and their homes. Throughout remote phys-ed, she swung on an outdoor obstacle course in her yard and she taught herself how to play piano, thanks to an app and poster on Facebook marketplace who was getting rid of the instrument free of charge.
Karn was on standby while Milne delivered her own remote lessons to students at the University of Winnipeg.
One highlight of remote school for Anna has been observing the growth of a green bean in science class. She named her bean Norman and she has been writing about him in French.
On one of the last days of the school year, Karn took Anna to go pick up her shoes and assignments from École Laura Secord School. Re-entering the school to say goodbye was emotional for Karn as a year of uncertainty and an abundance of quality time with her daughter came to an end.
For the first time this year, a single parent per household was allowed inside the building, with masks and distancing required.
"Anna has developed a lot of independence — a lot, like we’d leave her at the door and she’d go in," said Karn, adding she is curious to see how her daughter responds to a return to "normal" after months of strict public health orders.
"I see a whole psychological shift in just the way she sees the world that will be permanent, because these are her formative years."
The stress of solo schooling
On her last day of virtual school, Emby Blum-Payne revealed to the world a secret she had long been keeping among only her closest peers.
The nine-year-old openly admitted she had been taking part in the aptly-named "secret meeting" — which, as it turns out, was not all that secret because her mother was well aware of it and monitoring the virtual chat.
Once she had befriended other students in her virtual class, Emby started creating private meetings daily, after her Grade 3 teacher began his instructional video conferences on Google Meets.
"In Google Hangouts, I give three friends a link to the meeting and then we press it and then we can talk during class," said Emby, who then declared she cannot be grounded for multi-tasking with chat tabs because the academic year is over.
She claimed her teacher had no idea she was using Google Hangouts during class time.
"In Google Hangouts, I give three friends a link to the meeting and then we press it and then we can talk during class." – Emby Blum–Payne
Krystal Payne, meantime, was well aware of the distraction and often walked by her daughter’s remote learning classroom to remind her not to participate in any personal chats until her school work was complete.
To dissuade an extrovert like Emby from chit-chat is no easy feat — let alone after she has spent more than a year being unable to see her friends without taking precautions to keep her immunocompromised grandfather safe.
The Blum-Paynes’ efforts to reduce contacts by keeping Emby home proved successful during the 2020-21 school year.
While they had one COVID-19 scare, which was prompted by another family who tested positive informing them about their results following an impromptu masked, distanced and outdoor play date, Blum-Paynes all tested negative.
Emby says she screamed and told the nurse to "back off" as her nasal cavity was being swabbed.
After the ordeal, the family ordered Slurpees to their home in Elmwood to kick off their quarantine, but Payne doubts even a sugary drink could persuade Emby to take the invasive test again.
"The overwhelming theme of the year is stress and juggling, we were just juggling stress constantly. It doesn’t feel great. It feels like we made it work, but not well," said Payne.
She added she wishes she had homeschooled Emby rather than signing her up for an ever-changing virtual school year, which involved delays and teacher turnover that only added to nonstop stress.
The Blum-Paynes’ child psychologist has strongly recommended Emby go back to in-person school because of how hard things have been on her mental health.
"This year has actually just been really hard for us," said Payne. "I don’t know if I will ever look back on this year with warm fuzzy thoughts."
One bright spot in an otherwise difficult year includes Emby, an aspiring architect or editor, co-designing a playhouse with her father.
"This year has actually just been really hard for us. I don’t know if I will ever look back on this year with warm fuzzy thoughts."– Krystal Payne
This summer, the Blum-Paynes plan to unplug after a screen-heavy school year by putting Emby in both zoo and farm camps, partaking in family camping trips and purchasing cabin land.
Falls plans remain fuzzy, although Emby is not enrolled in the province’s virtual school and the Winnipeg School Division has confirmed it will no longer offer the same e-learning program she was in this year.
Since young pupils cannot get vaccinated yet, Payne is a proponent for keeping masking and distancing in place.
The prospect of public health protocols at school — or anywhere else — does not phase Emby, as long as they don’t prevent her from seeing friends. "People have said I’m the best kid at COVID," she said.
Asked about if she ever gets annoyed when wearing a mask, she responded, "It only hurts when I pick my nose."
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.