The re-opening of school this fall continues to be a challenging and sensitive decision for provincial governments throughout the country. On the Barangay Canada vodcast hosted by this writer, this has been the topic over a series of three episodes, starting with the Education Minister himself, Kelvin Goertzen, and then followed by the visit of NDP leader Wab Kinew and Malaya Marcelino of the Notre Dame riding. After a week’s gap, it was the turn of Trustees Greg McFarlane, vice chair of the Seven Oaks School Division and Jennifer Chen, vice chair of the Winnipeg school division, to shed light on the preparations being done to ensure that students, teachers and staff will have a safe return to the classroom.
McFarlane, who represents a school division encompassing 29 schools with a population of roughly 12,000 students, gave an overview of the safety measures that have been put in place. “We’ve provided each student and staff with three reusable masks. We’ve purchased a thousand plus plexiglass dividers for tables to keep kids separate. We’re going to be opening up all the doors in the schools so that we’re not corralling all the students into one entrance. They can enter from different areas. When it comes to busing, obviously that is going to be reduced, but everyone is going to have access to busing.”
The Winnipeg school division represented by Chen has 78 schools with a population of around 33, 000 students, by her estimate. On the topic of remote learning, she explained that it will depend on how the situation with the pandemic changes. “Under the province’s direction, the school divisions have developed three levels of response: level one, two and three. Level one is in-class learning, level two is a combination of in-class and remote learning, level three is remote learning. And that is based on the situation of the pandemic. So, the province has identified that we are at level one, which is in-class learning.” She did add that specific cases will be considered. “If a student has medical conditions, they can work out a plan of learning with their school. That also includes, for example, if your family member is vulnerable to the virus… So, it’s flexible because we want to keep everyone safe.”
The two trustees also mentioned that for high school students who will have a mix of learning in-class and online from home, Chromebooks with a data plan will be provided to ensure continuous learning without worrying about the cost of getting a computer and an internet connection. “We worked out a deal with MTS so that we can give these to the students with a plan so that it’s cost-feasible for the school division, ” McFarlane explained.
Chen also described the adjustments for lunch period in schools. “The lunch breaks are going to be staggered throughout the day, whenever possible. There’s also going to be a no-sharing policy in place. So whatever lunch you bring, don’t share it with your friends…If students bring their own lunch, they will sit at their own desk.” As for maintaining physical distancing during the lunch break, she explained how schools will go about it. “For classrooms that may be a bit difficult to keep social distancing, we’ll also use a multipurpose room, gym or a bigger room to accommodate a lunch program for students. And for high schools that have a cafeteria, there will also be adjustments. All food has to be pre-packaged, individually wrapped. So, it won’t be like a buffet-style lunch anymore.”
On the matter of increased vehicle traffic due to students opting to be dropped off by their parents or guardians, the two trustees conceded that vehicle traffic around schools was already a challenge even before the pandemic. Chen mentioned that one of the creative solutions being tried is encouraging students to be dropped off a block away and just walk to school the rest of the way for the additional health benefit of physical activity.
As the discussion wrapped up, McFarlane explained how school divisions are managing expectations. “We are under the assumption that there is going to be a low turnout of students probably the first two weeks. We just have to adjust day by day. I don’t think there is a concrete plan that’s set right across the board that everybody can use. We have to be proactive, and we have to kind of figure it out and deal with it as it comes. And I think this isn’t just schools. I think this is everybody in the world right now just doing the best that they can with what they have and hoping that you take all the right precautions and the right steps that you get to make the right decisions.”
Kris Ontong is an award-winning community advocate and a finalist in the 12th RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards. He is the co-founder and vodcast host of BarangayCanada.com