How a Winnipeg school division coped during the COVID-19 pandemic outlined in new report

Two years ago, Winnipeg music teacher Mary-Lynn Berti was telling her students not to sing in her classroom in accordance with public health rules, which were aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.

“That was the hardest thing,” said the kindergarten to Grade 4 music specialist at Amber Trails Community School. “It just felt so weird in a music room.”

As children return to classes on Wednesday, Berti is filled with hope and optimism after two years of restrictions.

Last year, she had to break up her students into cohorts to sing in small groups, but this year they’ll be able to experience the larger choral setting.

“For many of my students, they’ve never actually sung in a large choir. For those of us who have sung in a choir before, we know what that experience is like to have your voice join with many other voices,” she said in an interview on CBC Manitoba’s Information Radio on Wednesday.

Experiences like Berti’s were outlined in a report by the Seven Oaks School Division released on Tuesday that examines the realities of education during the pandemic.

The 28-page document includes a timeline of public health updates, provincial and division-specific data comparing outcomes between 2018 and 2022 as well as educator accounts of how the pandemic affected their jobs.

“It’s a bit of a record of what one school system did navigating the pandemic and really a testament to the hard work, perseverance and dedication of our staff and the support of parents, because we off-loaded a lot onto parents during COVID,” said Brian O’Leary, the superintendent of the school division, in an interview on Wednesday.

Fewer students in the Seven Oaks School Division say they are motivated to graduate high school and attend university this year compared with 2018. More are also reporting moderate to high anxiety and depression levels. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Although the virus and public health orders interrupted the school year and posed challenges for staff, academic performance in the division remained “fairly consistent,” according to the 28-page report.

“However, gaps emerge when we examine engagement data, suggesting that COVID-19 had a much larger impact on social engagement and mental health,” it says.

The number of students who reported feeling a positive sense of belonging at school and high self-esteem dropped by 10 per cent each.

Those who shared they had moderate to high levels of anxiety and depression spiked to 40 per cent in 2022 from 29 per cent in 2018.

Fewer people also reported feeling motivated to finish high school and pursue post-secondary education in 2022 compared with 2018.

Before the pandemic, 85 per cent of students said they were motivated to graduate, while in 2022 just 75 per cent of students said they wanted to complete high school. Students who said they wanted to pursue college or university dropped by 10 per cent during the same time period.

“I think we need to acknowledge that this was hard on kids, hard on families and it’ll take a bit of time to recover,” O’Leary said.

He hopes the return to school will mean students’ mental health balances out, but recognizes some families had it worse than others.

“We were all in the same storm but we weren’t in the same boat, O’Leary said. “Some of our kids and some of their families were taking on a lot more water than others and I think we really have to acknowledge that and do our best to even things out.”

Stories from inside schools

As Berti did with her choir, others had to pivot for the safety of children and staff.

Rob Ens, a physical education teacher at Forest Park School, taught classes outside throughout the entire school year last year, with the exception of seven days.

“No matter the season, as a physical educator I know the ultimate goal is to help inspire students to become motivated to choose healthy, active lifestyles,” he says in the report.

Ross Meacham, the principal at Riverbend Community School, says he spent a huge portion of his time at work contact tracing, following up with families and working to build trust.

“The hours were long but the biggest piece was the emotional load of trying to make sure that everyone is OK; that no one is trying to make things harder for anyone else; that we’re taking care of you,” he wrote in the report.

Berti is looking forward to returning to the classroom with her pupils.

“I know I speak for many music educators when I say we’re just really excited that we’ll be able to do all the things with our students this year.”