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Manitoba Students Getting Ready To Head Back Into The Classroom

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Manitoba students will be back in the classroom this fall.

And while students and staff will be expected to follow the ”COVID-safe” basics, such as self-screening, hand hygiene and staying home when sick. there is currently no requirement for the wearing of masks.

“It was a kind of announcement we were expecting after the most recent announcement on the easing of public health restrictions made several days before,” Mountain View School Division superintendent/CEO Dan Ward said.

“We weren’t sure where public health would come out on mask recommendations versus mask mandates and certainly there was some clarity around that.”

Public health officials will continue to monitor data and local conditions closely. All guidance will be reviewed before the start of the school year and on an ongoing basis.

Ward is anticipating many questions coming from staff, students and the community at large regarding reopening rules and the division is preparing for that in consultation with employee groups, the Manitoba School Boards Association and public health.

“I know that there’s going to be some concerns both from staff and families around the easing of the restrictions,” Ward said. “There’s going to be lots of questions and that’s what we’re certainly preparing for right now on our front, in terms of the school division.”

While there is no longer a mask requirement for Grades 4 and up, the province is recommending mask use for all students from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

“So that’s definitely a change and I think it reflects the fact that of course our children under the age of 12 are not eligible for vaccination,” Ward said. “So I think there’s going to be some required education around that in our schools as we encourage families to send their children to school wearing a mask, even if they’re younger than Grade 4.”

The focus of the 2021-22 school year will be on addressing the mental health and wellbeing of students and the education workforce, ensuring supports for students with special needs, as well as addressing the learning impacts from the pandemic.

While it is expected that COVID-19 infections will continue to occur, cases and severe illness have declined significantly due to most people 12 years and older being vaccinated.

When most people 12 years and older are immunized, exposures in schools are less likely to lead to further transmission, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said.

“Studies show that children are less likely to transmit COVID-19 while at home, in school or in community settings, and they are at lower risk of severe illness from COVID-19,” Roussin said, adding there are significant benefits to learning and overall well-being from the in-person interaction and extracurricular activities youth get at school.

As part of the province’s plan to ensure the health and wellness of students, a renewed focus on immunizations for school-aged youth will also launch this fall.

Currently, about two-thirds of those aged 12 to 17 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and about 52 per cent have received both doses.

Immunization teams will attend all schools with students aged 12 to 17 to provide first and second doses, beginning in areas with lower vaccine uptake, to help reduce potential barriers to immunization.

“We’re waiting for more details on that,” Ward said, adding information he has received indicates the initial focus would be on regions where the vaccination rates have been lower than the provincial average.

Planning is also underway for a school-based campaign for children aged five to 11, once the COVID-19 vaccines are approved for use.

In terms of staff, MVSD is in a good place, Ward said.

“Right now it shouldn’t have an impact on our staffing. We did receive additional dollars for this upcoming year to hire additional staff and we have hired some additional staff, both teachers and EAs,” Ward said, adding last year the division also hired some additional custodial staff and is still looking at filling a number of positions throughout the division. “The cohort requirement for this upcoming year will be for Kindergarten through Grade 6 and we’re fully prepared for that.”

Additional staffing needs will be assessed as they arise throughout the year, he added.

As they get back to learning. schools will use student assessments to further understand and address the impacts of COVID-19 on learning and plans are to hold stakeholder engagements to develop supports to improve the mental health and wellbeing of students and staff.

“We will still be doing our Grade 3 assessment which certainly will provide data to us where our youngest children are at,” Ward said. “Considering children going into Grade 3, the majority of their school experience thus far or a good portion of it has been impacted by COVID. So determining where our youngest children are at will certainly be something that will be determined through not only the provincial assessment, but more importantly through classroom based assessments that we do intend to support our teachers with.”

Some additional staffing that have been utilized for the division’s response to intervention planning will support schools directly in terms of assessing students, determining what level they are at and what kind of supports they may need to be successful, Ward said.

As well, MVSD is looking closely at it’s high schools as there are a number of students that were on track to graduate at the end of last year that were missing some courses and so they didn’t graduate.

“But we fully anticipate they will graduate this year,” Ward said. “They are getting some additional support in terms of tracking what courses they’ve missed and support in terms of bringing them back to school full-time and ensuring that they get the resources they need to successfully graduate.”

In terms of mental health, a priority for MVSD, the division has allocated additional dollars to positions around social work and is looking at hiring an additional community connector.

“We feel that mental health and promoting mental health and wellness really is best accomplished through a community approach,” Ward said, adding there was some targeted provincial funding focussed on mental health and wellbeing.

“So continuing to work with stakeholders in our communities that can support our families. But we are investing dollars in specific positions and programs to facilitate mental health programming throughout all of our 16 schools.”

Ward admits remote learning was not a positive experience for everyone and has resulted in some learning gaps. It is a priority for MVSD, he said, to support those families in their return to a more familiar learning environment.

“So that the children can return and be supported both academically and socially. So that they can achieve the learning goals that they would have perhaps missed out on last year,” he said. “We are very much looking forward to bringing all students back full time.”