Return to school prompts worries

There is no shortage of frustration nor fear among families awaiting Manitoba’s school reopening plans to see whether they will have to adjust their schedules around COVID-19 — again.

Less than one week before classes are to restart after winter break, Courtney Fernandes, a single mother of two in Winnipeg, is wary of both possibilities: in-person learning amid spiking Omicron cases or temporary remote instruction.

“It is scary and the last thing I want is for my family to get sick again or anyone else,” said Fernandes, an accounting clerk who is recovering with her three-year-old and 11-year-old after they all contracted SARS-CoV-2 over the holidays.

“But if schools go remote, I wouldn’t be able to work, which means I’d lose my daycare spot. It took me over a year to get a job when COVID started, I cannot afford to leave another position.”

On Monday, Ontario announced its K-12 students will study at home for the next two weeks, as that province continues to log daily records of new cases during the fourth wave of the pandemic.

Both the Manitoba Teachers’ Society and board of trustees in the Winnipeg School Division have requested local officials make a similar announcement.

The above organizations have cited surging caseloads and health-care capacity in Manitoba; between Friday and Sunday, upwards of 5,400 new COVID-19 infections were reported.

Teacher/parent Karla Havelka said she was disappointed her union did not survey members before calling for schools to be downgraded to critical (code red) on the province’s pandemic response system.

While noting her three children despise remote learning, Havelka said they are privileged in they each have a device for such work. Many families cannot afford quality internet, computers, or homes big enough so all occupants have a quiet space to work, she said.

“I put my back up when they call it ‘remote learning,’ because for a lot of students, there’s not a lot of learning happening,” said the Grade 5/6 educator in Winnipeg’s Elmwood neighbourhood. “It’s time off school.”

Education disruptions have worsened student mental health, behavioural issues and academic gains, she said, adding roughly one-third of her 21 students are at a Grade 1 or 2 level this year.

“I’m not saying there are no risks (to keeping schools open), but it’s not COVID versus nothing. It’s COVID versus all of these other things,” Havelka said, noting in-person school provides all students with routine, socialization, and a safe space during the day.

Schools should have N95 masks available for staff upon a return in an ideal world, but she said if that is not possible, everyone is at least now familiar with the due diligence required to stay safe.

Widespread uptake of the COVID-19 vaccines has put East St. Paul’s Kristin Okhmatovski at ease about the resumption of in-person classes, although the mother of eight would welcome remote options.

“I’m concerned for my kids who struggled, particularly the (older) ones for whom this year is pivotal,” she said Monday via message. “I hope they can overcome whatever happens, but I know that their futures are being negatively affected.”

Throughout the pandemic, Okhmatovski said she has seen firsthand how her kids learn differently. Some of her children, who range in age from two to 19, have found success via remote learning; others have found it difficult to stay motivated and become disillusioned with school.

Nash, her second-youngest child, said he would prefer to be back in school with his classmates next week — even though the 13-year-old said wearing a mask is extremely irritating, particularly during phys-ed classes.

“When you’re on a computer, you’re one click away from watching YouTube… Some days, I literally do no work or I just do the meetings because I’m distracted,” said the Grade 8 student.

Provincial officials and superintendents are scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss the return to classes Jan. 10.

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