Tougher school restrictions, remote learning options kick in for Winnipeg area, northern Manitoba

New rules kicked in for schools in Winnipeg, its surrounding areas and northern Manitoba on Monday as the province’s COVID-19 case count continues its steady rise.

Under the new restrictions, schools are required to keep students a full two metres apart “to the greatest extent possible.”

Kindergarten to Grade 8 students may also have the option of temporary remote learning while schools remain in the restricted orange level of the province’s pandemic response system.

Julie Allard is one Winnipeg parent who had just days to decide whether to pull her twin boys out of the classroom.

“It’s something I would have liked to have seen earlier on, that should have been better prepared, rather than thrown together [at the] last minute,” Allard said. “It feels like there isn’t much of a plan right now for it.”

Parents like Allard in the Division scolaire franco-manitobaine were sent a survey on Thursday, asking them to check a box by the following Monday to indicate whether they want their child to switch to remote learning.

“It is important to understand that once you have made your choice, it is for the entire duration that the school is in a restricted level (orange),” the letter reads.

Right now, most school divisions offer some form of remote learning, but only for students who are immunocompromised or have family members who are.

Allard spoke out in the summer, saying remote learning should be an option for all students in Manitoba who want it.

But now that her twin boys are used to the routine of their Grade 2 classroom, she decided she’ll keep them in school — at least for now.

“Remote learning might only be for a month, and then you’re messing that up when you have to go back to a school routine,” she said.

Schools prepare to transition

The superintendent for Winnipeg’s Seven Oaks School Division said the new rules don’t mean every student will have automatic access to remote education.

Most divisions will spend this week getting organized and preparing to transition more students to temporary remote learning, Brian O’Leary said, but they’ll need to make sure the student’s home can support them.

“The classroom teachers are still going to have a full-time job teaching their classrooms,” he said. “If we’re removing small numbers of students, it doesn’t change their job.”

Brian O’Leary, superintendent of the Seven Oaks School Division, says schools will likely spend the first week under the new restrictions preparing to offer additional temporary remote learning options. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

O’Leary said while schools are taking these extra steps to improve safety with the the increasing COVID-19 case counts, overall “what we’ve done has worked.”

“The point I’d want to make, especially to parents, is for the numbers of kids attending schools, there’s been very few cases in schools,” he said.

“We’ve got three large high schools [in our school division]. Each school has only had one student affected. So that’s 3,000 kids, and three have had to miss a few days and have come back to school.”

O’Leary said the division sees the risk of students coming to school as manageable, especially since most are better-served in their classrooms than at home.

Allard agrees, praising her boys’ school for the steps they’ve taken to keep her children safe.

“I feel comfortable for now, anyways. That might change,” she said. “If we start [seeing] cases in their school, for sure, we would pull them out.”

The province has also told schools to move extra furniture and re-purpose other rooms to make even more space than before.

Some extracurricular activities are also being altered: choir and the use of wind instruments are being temporarily paused, and field trips are being postponed.