Minister hints Manitoba school update coming this week as holiday break nears

Teachers, students and parents may soon get a better sense of what the winter break will look like after Manitoba’s education minister hinted an update is on the way.

On Monday, Kelvin Goertzen said he plans to share more with the public about plans for the holiday school break later this month.

“We know that our educators, not just teachers but of course EAs and bus drivers and janitors, have been working extremely hard in our school systems,” Goertzen said during question period at the Manitoba Legislature.

“There is a need for the system to have some relief when it comes to personnel, when it comes to COVID-19, and we’ll have more to say about that this week.”

The statement comes a little over two weeks after health officials acknowledged the province was mulling the possibility of extending the winter break, anticipating a rise in cases over the holidays.

Official Opposition Leader Wab Kinew pushed Goertzen for more details so families and educators can prepare for changes as the winter break nears.

“All weekend I’ve been receiving calls from parents and child-care facility directors and educators who are worried,” Kinew said.

“There is only three weeks before the winter break and yet people are still wondering.… What they’re lacking when it comes to a plan for the holidays is clear direction from the government.”

Transmission low in schools

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin has repeatedly said the school system has done a good job of minimizing the spread of COVID-19 in the face of soaring case numbers this fall.

As of Monday, somewhere in the range of 17 per cent of Manitoba’s 16,825 cases to date have been confirmed among people between the ages of zero and 19.

There have been hundreds of cases this fall in the school system, but Goertzen echoed Roussin on Monday in saying confirmed transmission rates have been relatively low in classrooms.

He said school-based transmission is confirmed when at least two positive cases in a school have been linked through contact tracing investigations. Six schools this fall have had confirmed transmission events, said Goertzen.

He and Roussin have both stressed that keeping in-class learning going is important for a range of developmental and mental health factors in young people.

Going remote

But in the past few months, Manitoba’s COVID-19 outlook has worsened considerably. Rising numbers in hospitals have strained the health-care system, and that triggered widespread closures of non-essential businesses just over two weeks ago when Manitoba moved to provincewide code red restrictions under its pandemic response system.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont says he thinks the province should consider remote learning for all students. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Winnipeg has consistently seen the most cases, but the Southern Health region has had some of the worst infection rates in Canada per capita. The region has hit test positivity rates in the 30 and 40 per cent range in some places this month.

That forced the largest rural school division in Manitoba, Hanover, to move into code red in the province’s pandemic response system, officially shifting its entire kindergarten to Grade 12 student body to remote learning last week. Nine other nearby schools were also forced to go remote. 

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said in light of high community transmission rates and the hundreds of confirmed cases in schools, he thinks moving all students to remote learning should be an option right now.

“It’s absolutely clear that one of the places where there are cases happening [is in schools], whether transmission is happening or not we’re not sure,” he said.

“It’s also clear that though the province keeps talking about tough measures, back in the spring we closed down schools, and we haven’t done that yet, so that’s still something that I think needs to be on the table.”