Students in two southern Manitoba school divisions will move to remote learning starting Tuesday as COVID-19 caseloads continue to rise across the province, officials say.
The shift will affect all 14 schools in the Winkler-area Garden Valley School Division and all 13 in the Red River Valley School Division, Education Minister Cliff Cullen said on a call with reporters Saturday.
Students in those divisions will join pupils in Winnipeg and Brandon — who already moved to remote learning on Wednesday — in learning from home until May 30.
The move means 373 of the province’s 820 schools have now shifted to remote learning, said Cullen, who was joined on Saturday’s call by Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba’s deputy chief public health officer.
The two divisions had a combined student population of more than 6,800 in the 2019-20 school year, according to the province.
With more than half of Manitoba adults now vaccinated with at least one dose against COVID-19 and everyone 12 and up eligible to book appointments, Cullen said he’s optimistic that students will return to classrooms to finish the year.
But the sudden switch demonstrates that the pandemic is always evolving, he said.
“This just serves as a warning for other areas around the province that this indeed could could happen to their school as well. So try to be prepared as much as you can.”
Manitoba reported 430 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, including 27 in the Southern Health Region, which includes both the Garden Valley and Red River Valley school divisions.
The province also reported four more deaths linked to the illness — three of which were people who contracted the B117 coronavirus variant first identified in the U.K.
Highly transmissible variants now account for nearly 60 per cent of Manitoba’s active COVID-19 cases.
Cullen urged Manitobans to follow the province’s most recent set of pandemic rules, which were tightened again last week.
“This is an important and critical time in our pandemic response,” he said, a day after public health officials unveiled modelling that showed COVID-19 daily case counts and intensive care admissions are exceeding Manitoba’s most extreme projected scenarios for the third wave.
‘Last resort’ decision
While Saturday’s remote learning update was announced at an unusual weekend news conference, Atwal said decisions like sending students from two divisions home “aren’t knee-jerk reactions.”
“We just don’t look at one number or one case in a school and we say there’s risk in a community,” he said. Discussions with public health teams happened on Friday but the final call to close more classrooms wasn’t made until Saturday, said Atwal.
“This is something we always do not want to do from a public health perspective, is to look at remote learning for schools. But when it seems to be the most viable option to limit that community transmission, then we have to act on that information.”
Atwal said it takes public health workers time to complete contact tracing investigations and new data about where COVID-19 is spreading changes hour by hour.
Moving students out of the classroom is “a measure of last resort,” Atwal said, and a continued increase in cases — many of which were linked to gatherings outside of school — forced the decision.
The move affects schools such as Winkler’s Garden Valley Collegiate, which alone has a student population of around 800.
The Red River Valley division includes schools in communities south of Winnipeg such as Sanford, Starbuck and Morris.