Parents in Winnipeg brace themselves for 1st day of at-home learning

Outside Machray School, there was laughter and shouting Tuesday, as elementary school kids played to celebrate class finishing for the day. For some, there was also a sense of sadness.

Starting Wednesday, the playground will be quiet as all kindergarten to Grade 12 schools in Winnipeg and Brandon switch to remote learning. In-person classes are suspended until at least May 30, with some exceptions for the children of critical service workers, students deemed high risk and those who have certain disabilities.

“The girls really love school and they’re not looking forward to not seeing their friends every day,” said Shalane Demas, who has three daughters at Machray, a school in Winnipeg’s North End.

“It’s just better for them learning here.”

Her girls, who are in kindergarten to Grade 3, got their first experience with remote learning when the pandemic first hit Manitoba last March. It wasn’t a positive experience, Demas says, adding her girls only got about a half hour a day of at-home instruction.

“I’m worried they’re going to be left behind now.… They should be learning more by now, and it’s falling back lots since this whole COVID.”  

Shalane Demas has three daughters who attend classes at Machray School. The girls will start learning remotely on Wednesday. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Demas hopes their experience will be better over the next few weeks. The school gave her two Chromebooks to take home Tuesday for the three girls to share.

The switch to remote learning comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise in Manitoba. On Tuesday, Manitoba’s seven-day average for daily cases reached 427, passing a high of 424 set during the province’s second pandemic wave.

School-age children make up 20 per cent of the province’s total cases, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin told reporters Sunday.

He said as of May 6, there had been a 25 per cent increase in cases involving school staff, and a 67 per cent increase in student cases over a two-week period.

In the two weeks leading up to May 9, there were 598 COVID-19 cases involving school-aged students and 117 involving school staff in Manitoba, according to provincial data.

A total of 255 schools reported one or more cases, but the province notes a case in a school doesn’t mean it was acquired there.  

“Honestly I didn’t even know it was that high,” said Demas. “I’m shocked.… Maybe it [remote learning] could be the best thing right now, I guess. I just don’t want it to keep lasting forever.”

Schools safe: deputy chief health officer

The shift to remote learning was announced on Sunday.

At a technical briefing that afternoon, deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal maintained schools themselves were safe.

“Public health isn’t worried about the act of being at school. It’s everything else that surrounds that — getting to school, what happens after school, what happens with those individuals when they’re not at school,” he said.

“I’ve dropped my kids off. I see four kids from four different households getting out of one car. We see things like this. Those are the issues that are occurring where that risk is propagated.”

Parent Megan Slaunwhite has been concerned about the rising case numbers and supports the switch to remote learning for her son.

“It’s a little easier than having to bring him there, and I don’t like having to worry about the whole COVID thing every time. And he’s excited about it.”  

But Slaunwhite says her son, who is in Grade 3 at Machray, struggled previously with remote learning.

She struggled to play the role of a teacher and thought the at-home learning materials could’ve been more complete. 

Her son also likes going to school, she says.

“He was very emotional, a lot more than usual, and he just missed everything about it.… It was kind of rough for a bit there.”

Education Minister Cliff Cullen says the goal is to get students back into the classroom before the end of the year.

The government is expected to open vaccine eligibility to everyone 12 and up by the end of the month, but it may take weeks before shots go into arms.