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Back in Session: Three Weeks In, How Are Schools Coping?

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Kids In Masks Crop

As September draws to a close, school has been back in session for about three weeks. Knowing that the incubation period for COVID-19 falls somewhere between 10 to 14 days, many people—especially parents—have become increasingly anxious as cases begin to rise.

But so far that rise has been centred in Winnipeg.

Although there is a spectrum of reactions from parents, the majority of those interviewed by The Citizen have expressed levels of concern, even fear, regarding the current state of the schools’ reopening plans. Others are more laidback, but just about everyone is watching the situation closely to see what happens next.

So how are things going so far and what can we expect to come?

Hanover School Division

The Hanover School Division released a letter to parents on September 18 that acknowledged the rise of cases across the province, particularly the first cases attributed to Manitoba schools, and addressed the division’s protocols for how it will handle COVID-19 cases when they are detected.

The process begins with the school’s receipt of a student’s positive lab report and the public health nurse’s interview of the child and their parent or guardian.

“If a school setting is identified as potential exposure, regional public health officials share information with provincial Public Health and the Department of Education,” the letter reads. “Manitoba Education will contact the school division. Regional Public Health notifies the principal of the affected school that a confirmed COVID-19 case has been identified in a student/child from their school and that the investigation is ongoing.”

This process relies heavily on Public Health to further conduct interviews of the principal and staff to conduct contact tracing and identify potential exposures at school. From there, close contacts or cohorts will be advised by Public Health to self-isolate, if necessary. Notice of the positive case and the steps taken will then be given to all families in the affected school.

At the date of writing, HSD has confirmed zero cases of COVID-19 in its schools so far.

The division has, however, had instances of children attending school while exhibiting cold or flu symptoms.

Shelley Amos, interim superintendent of the Hanover School Division, has outlined what the protocol is for removing a symptomatic child from the classroom.

“Especially with young children, yes, we’ve seen them come to school with symptoms,” Amos confirms. “If a child comes to the school or becomes symptomatic while at school, we remove them from the classroom setting and attend to them with a medical-grade mask and contact the parent to pick them up. Then we follow up with information about symptom awareness and how to get in touch with Public Health for possible testing. Public Health advises the parent on if testing is necessary.”

While families are still working to self-screen for symptoms, Amos says the division is quite happy with the level of mask-wearing they have observed.

“Overall the acceptance level is really good,” she says. “We have close to 8,000 students in our division and the vast majority are wearing them. It’s something we all might not like to do, but it is something we have to get used to.”

But what about instances where students may be exempt from wearing a mask?

“We do have some students with a medical accommodation and a reason why they can’t wear a mask,” Amos says. “So those students, which we were already pretty aware of before COVID hit, we do not require them to wear a mask.”

Since the start of school, reports have circulated of students attempting to board a school bus or enter a school without a mask. Amos says school staff are using education to increase buy-in among non-mask-wearers.

“We are providing these families with further education on why masks are useful and how much they help others,” says Amos. “There is a document prepared by Manitoba Health and Manitoba Education on mask-wearing and this further information will also be disseminated to all our families very soon.”

She says that increased cleaning and hand-washing have been implemented smoothly, although there have been some challenges along the way. One bottleneck in the system, for example, is dealing with the sheer volume of people who need to wash their hands at any given time. To address this, portable sinks are being brought in to act as hand-washing stations.

“Yes, it’s been a learning process,” she says. “Yes, it’s time-consuming, with extra hand-washing and staggering who gets to use the washrooms when. But we’ve had good feedback from principals and teaching staff as far as being able to regulate it. At the same time, if there’s something new that we need to change in our procedures, we will do so to make them better.”

Despite these new protocols, though, Amos acknowledges that many parents continue to express concern that the protocols in place aren’t good enough.

“To parents who say it’s really hard to keep kids apart, I refer them to Dr. Roussin, where he mentions that we’re doing this to the greatest extent possible. We know children use the play structures, and he says that is safe to do so. We know kids will encroach on each other’s space, but we are educators and we are teaching them to remain more physically distant. The staff is finding that the kids are really resilient… There’s a really high understanding of why we are not supposed to touch others and why we need to wear masks in school.”

Seine River School Division

In the Seine River School Division, superintendent Michael Borgfjord can also confirm that they have had zero cases of COVID-19 so far. The SRSD is operating similarly to the HSD, with students being divided into cohorts and senior high school students attending classes only part-time. In Seine River, students in Grades 9 and 10 attend on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, while students in Grades 11 and 12 go on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Borgfjord says that the collaboration between Manitoba Education and Manitoba Health strongly dictates what is to be done in the event of a positive test result, so there isn’t much difference between Seine River and Hanover in that sense.

“Our cleaning protocols and training with our staff has gone well,” says Borgfjord. “We are doing hand-washing and distancing. Everything has been set up to allow for interaction and education to happen in small groups.”

He reports that mask-wearing from students in Grade Four or above has been going well so far.

“We’ve had a very high level of acceptance toward mask-wearing,” he says. “I know this because we’ve had to give out very few masks. On the first couple of days, we probably had about 98 percent of kids coming in with masks. It’s been very seamless in that regard. There are other challenges with mask-wearing… you know, kids get tired of wearing them and need to be reminded not to touch their face. Adults do, too! But there is an attitude of acceptance and knowing we are protecting each other when we wear our masks.”

How Families Are Coping

In late September, the number of active cases in Southern Health has remained relatively low, without any large spike like the one currently being seen in Winnipeg. As a result, there may be some parents who have started to believe we’re out of the woods.

Conversely, there are parents who still feel anxious and insist that our first case is right around the corner. They feel it’s just a matter of time before an outbreak hits.

Those with the highest level of concern have been driven to try home-schooling this year. The Hanover School Division reports that about 500 families are keeping their kids home, which is about double the rate of home-schooling reported last year.

Becki and James Wiens, who have children at Niverville Elementary School, agree that we’ve been very fortunate so far, but they don’t believe members of the community should be less concerned just because the numbers are low.

“We can hardly predict what is around the corner,” says Becki. “From what I have seen, the school division is doing the best they can. I do not envy the school administration’s role in this whole situation. I am grateful for the work they are doing. However they are making decisions, it seems to be effective so far… That being said, I think it is naive to think Hanover will stay unaffected in the future.”

Becki says her family has a plan in the event that cases are reported at their children’s school and they are asked to self-isolate.

“Our family is very fortunate at this time that I am able to work from home and my hours are flexible,” she says. “If either of my children’s cohorts were affected, I would simply be able to stay home with them. On the other hand, I run a before and after school care program as well as a daycare from our home. I would have to close my business for at least two weeks, which would put a significant dent in our monthly income.”

The Shott family from St. Adolphe has also been getting used to all the new protocols, including the hiccups that come with their high-schooler’s three-day week.

“I feel that no matter how ‘good’ we are doing currently, we are going to get cases in all schools eventually,” says Jocelyn Shott. “From what my son says, the school is doing a really good job in following the new protocols. The EAs are being very strict about who can go through which doors. Some school doors are locked and visitors are needing to buzz in. And the EAs are doing a wonderful job keeping kids in their cohorts at recess. The kids are wearing their masks well and the teachers are still managing to keep learning fun despite it looking so different this year.”

Jocelyn and her husband Kevin are both essential workers, and because their children are older, childcare wouldn’t be much of an issue if their cohorts were to be affected. She says it would look a lot like the situation everyone faced in the spring.

Have a Plan

Speaking for the HSD, Amos seeks to remind families to be diligent and rely on Public Health’s advice to continue to keep cases low. However, she acknowledges that it’s only a matter of time before they see their first case in a local school.

“We know cases in schools are happening across the province,” says Amos. “It will happen in Hanover schools as well. But the more diligence we can have following the Public Health guidelines, we will be able to keep cases low. We see the evidence and impact that wearing masks and social distancing has. Remaining in cohorts will work.”

Amos also has confidence in the shared support from Manitoba Education and Manitoba Health. She’s heard from other school divisions that have already had confirmed cases, and so far they’ve had good support from the province.

“I would expect the same level of partnership between us and Southern Health when it does happen in our area,” Amos says, emphasizing that the division remains in weekly communication with Manitoba Education.

Amos has one last piece of advice for families: have a plan in place for when your school is affected.

“I think parents should think about their arrangements for if this happens and what you would do if you do get that call,” she says.

As for Superintendent Borgfjord of the SRSD, he says that his school division needs cooperation from all its families.

“If we’re anxious about it, then children and others will be anxious about it,” Borgfjord says. “There are levels of anxiety all over the place because of this. There is risk everywhere, and in society we all know that. It is a matter of learning to be socially responsible with our health.”

Borgfjord, who has four kids of his own—two in university, and two others in the school system—says he knows it’s not easy and has a great deal of respect for what parents are going through.

“We ourselves limit the amount of times we go out,” he says. “There is definitely a time to stay home, but we need to go to school instead of just going inside and retreating. As a parent and an educator, I know this for my family: we need our kids in school. We can teach them to be responsible, model how to be more restrained, and when to take their mask off and how. Everything we do as parents can reinforce and help more young people to live on with this in a safer way.”

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