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Going Back to School Under the Pall of COVID

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As plans for the upcoming school year change, everyone involved—whether parents, teachers, or administrators—struggle to cope with the unfolding reality.

The new school year is nearly upon us and once again COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on parents, teachers, and students as they prepare to return.

As of this writing, 77.8 percent of Manitobans who are eligible to be vaccinated have received both of the recommended doses. An even larger number, 84 percent of eligible recipients, have received at least one dose. These figures rise daily, but the rate of increase has slowed as misinformation and confusion about the vaccine continues to circulate in the face of the fourth wave, which most medical experts across the country now consider either inevitable or already in progress.

Late in August, in a move that came as a surprise to many, Premier Brian Pallister mandated vaccinations for all eligible Manitobans who work in the government or with vulnerable sectors of the population.

This had an immediate impact on the school system, since it means that all school employees will need to be vaccinated or face up to three COVID-19 tests per week.

In the same announcement, Pallister brought back the mask mandate for all indoor public settings. As a result, school will once again begin this year with masked students, teachers, and administration.

The Citizen spoke with a number of parents in the rural southeast regarding their feelings about sending their children back to school. Many parents were willing to speak on the record but wanted to remain anonymous, since masking and vaccinating have proven to be such polarizing issues.

One anonymous mother, A1, has children going into Grades One, Four, and Six. She has concerns about the upcoming school year. Last year, she decided to home-school.

“We live in an area with disappointingly low vaccination rates, so there is concern about community transmission at school,” says A1. “If the numbers head south leading into the school year, I will likely pull my kids to home-school again.”

A second mother, who has also chosen to remain anonymous (A2), has two high-school-aged children, although she is concerned for entirely different reasons.

“I am concerned that there will be too much peer pressure or judgment placed on the children for the decisions their parents have made to vaccinate or not,” she says.

A2 adds that she wants her children to be in school and feels that home-schooling last year didn’t work out well for her family at all.

“I watched last year as my A+ average students became D- students during COVID-19,” she laments.

Michelle Laarissa’s two daughters will be attending Manitoba’s French-language school division in the fall, Division scholaire franco-manitobaine. She is cautiously optimistic about the upcoming school year.

“There is hope on the horizon that this year might be closer to normal than the past two,” says Laarissa.

A third anonymous mother, A3, has children at Niverville Middle School and Niverville High School. Until very recently, she says that she was calm about her children going back to school.

“But I’m getting nervous now with the cases of children contracting COVID-19 rising in the U.S.,” says A3. “I’m also concerned about the effects of the recent brief lifting of mask mandates.”

The next anonymous mother, A4, has one child entering Kindergarten. She is both excited and nervous for her son’s first school experience.

“I’m not so nervous about my son contracting the virus,” A4 says. “We follow the rules as a family and don’t spend a lot of time in public places outside of school and work. I’m more nervous about him having a bad school experience due to COVID-19. The early years are so fundamental and you can’t get that time back.”

Through interviewing so many parents, it became clear that their number one issue concerned the use of masks.

Amber Klassen has one child in preschool and reports that she has been able to breathe easier ever since the indoor mask mandate was reinstituted.

Many of the others—including A1, A2, A3, and Laarissa—say that their children would have been masked even if it hadn’t been mandated.

But not everyone agrees. A fifth anonymous mother, A5, has a daughter going into Grade One at Niverville Elementary School and she has some lingering concerns. Principally, she feels that the previous policy—in which children in Grades One through Three would have worn a mask only if it was their parents’ choice—was better.

“For students that young, it should be parental choice,” says A5. “Young children often have a hard time keeping a mask on and I don’t think it’s healthy for young children to breathe through a mask for extended periods of time. But if other parents are concerned about their children’s health or feel like their child is okay with wearing a mask, then it should be their choice. But I firmly believe that it should not be mandatory for these young K-3 students.”

A5 also feels that mask-wearing at such a young age may give people a false sense of security. Having worked with young children in the past, she recalls how often they touch their face—and in general touch everything around them.

“A mask won’t change that, or maybe will only slightly reduce it,” she says. “Children touch masks, pull it down to wipe or pick their noses, and then put it back on to proceed to touch everything around them, trade them with each other… and generally just touch masks a lot. How is that preventing any virus from being spread amongst a class of 25 Grade One students? It won’t! I think from the outside, those very concerned about this virus for their children will feel comforted seeing all the children with masks on at school. But in reality, will it actually help stop Delta from spreading amongst children?”

A4 feels differently. She points out that the early years of school, in particular Kindergarten, are very social experiences and that the children often learn through play. Last year’s policy of social distancing as the method of choice for preventing COVID-19 transmission was, in her opinion, not really practical for young children and took away from the experience.

“I’m sure teachers did the very best they could last year, but I almost don’t see the point of Kindergarten if the kids can’t interact with one another or freely explore and are contained to a table spot,” A4 says. “With the implementation of mandatory masks, my hope is there will be less emphasis on social distancing and possibly a more ‘normal’ Kindergarten experience. I hope they can play with each other, sit together during carpet time, sing, and play tag. Normal kid stuff that kinders were not allowed to do last year.”

As for vaccinations, all the parents who spoke to The Citizen were basically on the same page.

A1 says that her children are currently too young to be vaccinated but that they will be as soon as they’re old enough. She was strongly in favour of the new mandate from the government requiring all employees in the school system to be fully vaccinated.

A3 and Laarissa both say that their eligible children have been vaccinated and their younger children will be vaccinated as soon as they’re old enough.

Bigger Than Any School Division

Shelley Amos, interim superintendent of the Hanover School Division, says that she has received a lot of correspondence from people on both sides of the mask and vaccine debates.

Amos would like people to understand that she is not the one who makes these policies, nor is she the one who will decide the consequences for those who choose not to follow the rules.

“I think for some people there is some misinformation, or there’s a belief that Hanover School Division has made some of these decisions, or even that Hanover School Division has input into some of these decisions,” says Amos. “We don’t. We are legally obligated to follow the public health order as it stands, so it’s much bigger than any one school division.”

Amos points out that oftentimes she and her team hear the public health announcements at the same time as the rest of the province. Because of this, many of the questions that are directed to her office in the immediate hours and days following press conferences can’t be answered for the simple reason that the answers don’t yet exist.

As of this writing, Amos says that the division is still awaiting input from the provincial government on multiple issues related to COVID-19, as well as from the Manitoba School Boards Association and from their legal counsel.

When asked about staff members and potential pushback regarding the vaccination mandate, Amos says that she has received some general inquiries from staff members but no one has, as of yet, officially said that they intend to go against the policy.

She refers to what she has received so far as “vague initial correspondence.”

An anti-mask rally was held on Monday, August 30 at the division offices in Steinbach. Amos says that she has heard about the plans and that there wasn’t much the division could do about a gathering taking place on public property, much like the small protest in Winnipeg last week at the Legislature.

Approximately 200 people showed up at that rally, including a significant number of children. As speakers began to address the crowd, the RCMP were called in to manage the scene.

“Once again, I want people to understand that it’s not the Hanover School Division’s decision to implement [the policies regarding] the mask or the vaccination or the testing,” says Amos regarding people who choose to protest or fight the regulations. “Those are decisions made by Public Health. I would just encourage people to be peaceful and understanding, compassionate and collaborative.”

She adds that she fully understands and acknowledges that there are many different opinions about all the mandates and policies and COVID-19 in general. She is just hoping that everyone can be kind and that kids can be in school.

“Despite everything that is going on, our students are coming back into our buildings and we are really looking forward to welcoming them back… in person, in classrooms with teachers, where we know that our kids learn best,” Amos says. “We know how hard and trying this has been on mental health and well-being for everyone over the last 18 months and so we want those relationships with our kids in our schools.”

A Diversity of Opinion

When asked what they would like to see happen in our local schools for the upcoming year, the parents we spoke with had many thoughts.

A3 says she hopes that if mask mandates are lifted at some point in the future, her children won’t feel singled out for continuing to wear them.

A2 also has concerns about kids being singled out.

“The cohorts are only beneficial for limiting contact, not stopping it, and that pressure on students needs to stop,” says A2. “We are teaching our children to discriminate against others because of age, group, vaccination choice, or more… Let’s be real: the students eat lunch with their friends with no masks and see each other outside of school with no masks. Let’s not make it so they can’t sit in a class properly without a mask while sitting alone at a desk.”

Klassen believes that everyone involved has so far been doing their best to deal with the hand they were dealt.

“No one has lived through a pandemic before, so I didn’t have many expectations,” says Klassen. “I’m glad to see people in power mandating masks again and putting restrictions in place to keep kids safe. My family, along with myself, have worked so hard and tirelessly to keep us all safe, listening to the restrictions, and being diligent. It was a huge slap to the face knowing that so many did not care and only listened because they had to.”

For her part, Laarissa spoke about the impact that the pandemic has had on the world—impacts that we are only beginning to understand.

“Our children are the future, and the lessons they are learning now about thinking of others, being kind, being generous, being helpful, and persevering through this challenging time will have a lasting effect,” Laarissa says. “I truly believe they will be stronger and more resilient as a result. I don’t envy the decision-makers at this time and am thankful for the hard work they have done to walk us through these unprecedented times. I am thankful to live in a country that has provided free access to vaccines, testing, and medical care when needed. Many in the world do not have this privilege.”

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