Kindergarten to Grade 12 students in Winnipeg, Brandon move to remote learning Wednesday

All kindergarten to Grade 12 students in Winnipeg and Brandon are moving to remote learning starting Wednesday in an effort to curb Manitoba’s rising third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the province says.

Those students will stay at home until May 30, Education Minister Cliff Cullen said at an impromptu news conference, alongside Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin, on Sunday afternoon.

Schools that move to remote learning will still be able to accommodate children of critical service workers from kindergarten to Grade 6. They’ll also be able to accommodate kindergarten to Grade 12 students deemed high risk or who have certain disabilities, Cullen said.

Schools in other parts of Manitoba will stay open for now but will make the shift to remote learning if they have more than one COVID-19 case, unless they involve people from the same household. If needed, the province may also look at closing schools in other regions, but for now the focus is on where most of the cases are appearing, Roussin said.

“Three-quarters of the schools affected are in Winnipeg and Brandon. So right now, that was the most important to move [to remote learning] at this point,” he said.

Schools that stay open will now be allowed to require symptomatic students or staff to stay home for 10 days, Cullen said. Other changes include cancelled extracurricular activities — including all organized sports and off-site activities — except for physically distanced walks or runs in the area.

Indoor singing and the use of wind instruments will also be banned in schools.

WATCH | Education minister announces remote learning for Winnipeg, Brandon schools:

Education Minister Cliff Cullen says all schools in Winnipeg and Brandon will move to online learning on Wednesday until May 30. 1:24

Roussin said he’s optimistic that it will be safe for students to return to classes in June, especially since it’s “very likely” all Manitobans 12 years of age and older will be eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 sometime this month.

The update came amid growing calls from parents and a Manitoba’s teachers’ union to move public schools to remote learning. Last week, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society urged the province to make the change until the latest pandemic wave wanes, which would allow time for staff to get vaccinated and pandemic restrictions to have an effect.

While COVID-19 has spread in Manitoba schools, transmission among school-aged kids hasn’t been nearly as high in classrooms as it’s been outside of them, Roussin said. And it’s because of that rising spread in the community that some schools are now sending students home.

WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin on reasoning behind moving some schools to remote learning:

Dr. Brent Roussin says COVID-19 cases are rising among school aged children, but most of the infections are in Winnipeg and Brandon. 1:06

“What happens is when you’re having widespread, community-based transmission [and an] increasing number of case counts within those age cohorts, then you’re just going to see more and more cases that are linked to schools,” Roussin said, adding that roughly 20 per cent of Manitoba’s overall cases are among school-aged kids.

“This is why we need to end those transmission cycles [and] take this time now to flatten that curve.”

Daycares to stay open

Currently, child-care facilities are staying open across the province. But children who have been moved to remote learning shouldn’t go to daycare before or after school, the province said. Facilities outside Winnipeg and Brandon will follow the same added guidance as schools in those regions.

Starting this week, shipments of personal protective equipment to the child-care sector will be significantly increased. Those deliveries will now include 1.1 million units every month — up from 100,000 — to meet increased need for masks, according to a provincial news release.

WATCH | Schools closed over ‘dramatic increase’ in community transmission:

Dr. Brent Roussin says closing schools is a last resort, but in this case is an important part of breaking COVID-19 transmission chains. 0:41

There won’t be any changes to class cohort sizes for now because there’s less evidence of COVID-19 spread in younger age groups, the province said. Public health officials will keep reviewing data to decide whether more changes are needed.

A technical briefing call for reporters is scheduled for later Sunday afternoon with Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba’s deputy chief provincial public health officer. That update will not be live streamed.

Critics respond to move

The province’s opposition parties were critical of Sunday’s announcement.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said schools should have moved to remote learning days ago.

“There is no reason why this had to wait so long when we have seen cases going up for more than a month, you had people across the school system pleading for help and you had teachers and school divisions all pleading for action to happen,” he told a news conference on Sunday.

Malaya Marcelino, the NDP MLA for Notre Dame, said she’s concerned that people who work in grocery stores and other essential roles can’t work from home and can’t afford to stay home from work to care for their children. 

“We’d like to see that addressed by this government for those essential workers and their families,” she said.

Marcelino, who serves as the public affairs critic for the Manitoba NDP, said people in the province have been “in the dark” and should have been told there’s in-school transmission.

“I’m very concerned that we are only now hearing that community transmission is happening in schools. Why did it take so long for this government to let us know this?”

New restrictions started Sunday

Sunday marks the first day of Manitoba’s increasingly tightened pandemic rules, which shut down a slew of businesses from salons to gyms and barred indoor activities, including religious services and sports.

Some parents said they were frustrated by the lack of plan for schools in the latest public health order amid a rising third wave of COVID-19 infections that has led to a similar rise in hospital intensive care admissions.

When the new rules were announced on Friday, Roussin said shutting down classrooms was something the province was “actively looking at.”

“We haven’t made a decision on that, but we are going to be able to provide more information on that in the very near future,” he said.

Provincial data shows that 478 Manitoba students and 96 school staff members contracted the illness in the two weeks leading up to May 5. In the same time period, 17 schools had moved to remote learning.

Manitoba continues to report COVID-19 caseloads at a height not reached since the peak of its second wave.

WATCH | Full news conference on remote learning announcement on May 9, 2021:

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin and Education Minister Cliff Cullen announced new remote learning measures in some Manitoba schools: May 9, 2021. 39:21