As COVID-19 cases climb, some question safety of keeping Manitoba schools open

With at least five Manitoba schools now shifted to remote learning due to COVID-19, some are questioning whether it’s time to have all students in the province return to remote learning or risk more outbreaks. 

The question was posed to Manitoba’s chief public health officer multiple times during a news conference Monday. 

Dr. Brent Roussin said the province isn’t seeing significant transmission happening inside schools, but it’s happening in the community. 

“This transmission isn’t occurring in schools. It’s occurring with the youth gathering outside of schools, house parties, sleepovers,” he said. 

“So we are really stressing to parents that if we’re trying to keep these kids in school, we have to limit the amount of gathering that they have outside of school. That’s where we’re seeing that transmission.”

WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin on why schools are remaining open:

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, said Monday contact tracing shows more COVID-19 transmission is happening among children in gatherings outside of schools, and public health officials hope to keep schools open to in-person learning. 0:42

That was frustrating to hear for Sarah Carroll, whose nine-year-old son tested positive for COVID-19 this week. His school, École Marie-Anne-Gaboury, shifted to remote learning after several cases were confirmed among staff members and students.

“We are following all the protocols and we are following all the laws. And this still happened to my child,” she said. 

“So I feel let down by the government.”

As much as remote learning can be disruptive for families, she said she thinks it’s time for the province to consider it. 

“Maybe it’s not widespread in every single school, but we’re definitely starting to see clusters of it pop up in different schools,” she said. 

“Why not be proactive this time instead of keep on risking the safety of the kids, but more importantly the teachers, because what are we going to do without them, remote or not?”

Spread in schools?

Recent research has shown that schools can be a vector for the spread of COVID-19 in different jurisdictions, so it’s unlikely that Manitoba wouldn’t be experiencing that on some level, said Dr. Anand Kumar, a Manitoba infectious disease expert who’s also an ICU physician. 

It also shouldn’t be assumed that young people and children can’t get severely ill from COVID-19, he said. 

“I think it’s fair to say that the children are less prone to get severe disease. But recent data is suggesting … they clearly do get infected, and two, they clearly are a vector for transmission into the community,” he said. 

Epidemiologist Cynthia Carr said she doesn’t think in-classroom learning is leading to more COVID-19 cases, but pointed out that schools don’t exist in a vacuum. 

“The reality is that schools are in communities and schools are not immune to the spread that’s in the community,” she said. 

“So the more the community-based spread is escalating, the more risk, of course, there is for cases to occur in the school.”

Teachers worry 

As far as teachers go, James Bedford at the Manitoba Teachers’ Society says his union’s members are watching as the number of cases among people aged 10-19 go up, and worry what that means for them. 

Earlier this month, a spokesperson for the province said Manitobans in that age bracket made up 12.08 per cent of cases prior to the beginning of March of this year.

However, 10-19 year olds made up 16.6 per cent of cases detected between March 1 and April 11 — an increase of 37 per cent.

“When we look at who makes up the majority of the populations in our schools, it’s of course the 10 to 19 age group and even younger, and teachers are working with large numbers of these students on a regular basis,” Bedford said. 

However, he said he’d like to see the province do more to keep teachers safe — such as making sure they can get vaccinated more quickly — rather than shifting to remote learning. 

“We want to be proactive. We want to keep our schools safe. We want to keep them open right to the end of the school year. And this is a proactive measure to do that,” he said.