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Hanover School Division Deals with First COVID Cases

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The Hanover School Division's head offices in Steinbach.

As of the end of October, a handful schools in the Hanover School Divisions have experienced their first COVID-19 cases, including Niverville Middle School. Five of the division’s schools, those in Niverville and Landmark, have moved to provide optional at-home learning.

The reason the at-home learning option is only available in Niverville and Landmark is that those two communities are part of the Winnipeg metro region, which as of October 26 was moved to the restricted level (orange) on the province’s response system.

Parents and guardians of students at Niverville Elementary School, Niverville Middle School, Niverville High School, Landmark Elementary School, and Landmark Collegiate recently received a letter from the division outlining the at-home learning options and new in-school safety measures.

“There has been minimal school-level transmission among the K–12 schools with confirmed cases,” reads the letter. “Cohorts and other public health measures have been effective in mitigating the risk of transmission and informing contact tracing. Schools and administrators have implemented the public health measures consistently and have handled confirmed cases in schools with responsiveness, confidence, and a great deal of professionalism.”

The new measures for the affected schools include medical-grade disposable masks for teachers and staff who cross cohorts, an increased effort to enforce two-metre distancing between students in classrooms, and a repurposing of space to further divide classes into smaller groups.

While each school in Niverville and Landmark is finalizing its own plan to roll out at-home learning for those who have selected it, Hanover School Division superintendent Shelley Amos has said she is confident in both how the division has handled their first cases as well as how the province is helping schools handle the new protocols.

“Dr. Roussin has repeatedly pointed out that even though cases are on the rise in Manitoba, schools are not the centre of concern for where the cases are spreading,” Amos says. “So my confidence level is really good. I think there’s been 80 or more schools across Manitoba that have cases identified, but very few have been determined to be acquired at school, so it’s been determined it’s very low risk, or moderate risk. Not high risk… So, in short, all of our measures are helping us in preventing spread in schools. Now with the new restricted plans in our five schools, there will be some tweaks, obviously.”

How Cases Have Been Handled

In total, four schools in Hanover have reported cases of COVID-19: Niverville Middle School, Clearspring Middle School, Mitchell Middle School, and Kleefeld School. In these facilities, contact tracing has been carried out and rooms have been disinfected.

“Nobody wants to be the first case, and we’ve had four that we’ve dealt with now,” says Amos. “We’ve expected them and we’ve seen these happen across the province. I feel good with the processes we’ve put together with staff and communication to the community and I feel like it’s rolled out as we’ve wanted it to. It’s not a process we wanted to ever have to use, but we had it in place for just such an occurrence and it has worked well… We had the opportunity to learn from other schools that have gone through this before us. Overall, I’m happy with how our principals have handled this.”

No entire cohorts have been asked to isolate in conjunction with the cases at HSD schools—and up until the last week of October, no large groups of students needed to switch to at-home learning at the division’s direction.

“There were certain individuals who were contacted and told to isolate by Public Health, but not an entire cohort,” says Amos. “That is a decision made by Public Health, so when they contact the principals, that is when we would communicate to cohorts. When they have done contact tracing, they identify who sits beside whom and who spent time with kids in other cohorts. That’s how they determine who the close contacts are. In the three schools across Manitoba that have been in outbreak status, there were transmission or multiple cases that put a cohort in remote learning, but we haven’t experienced that.”

Chemical Use

Hanover School Division has faced some public scrutiny lately, with parents expressing concern over the hand sanitizers available to students and chemicals used for cleaning.

One of the new cleaning protocols involves fogging, a process unfamiliar to most parents. Amos says that the division wants to help people understand which products are used and why they have been selected.

“Yes, we have fielded a few calls for concern, but we feel confident we’ve been able to address them and provide the necessary information on what types of products we use,” Amos explains. “We put out the name of the chemical that we use in fogging and [assistant superintendent] Leanne Peters put out a lot of info on what the chemicals are. Education is information and information helps concern to dissipate.”

While the chemical names and procedures might be unfamiliar to parents, Amos says the products in use have been approved by Health Canada and conform to Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) safety protocols. The chemicals now used in schools are identical to the ones often used in other environments with vulnerable persons, such as hospitals.

WHMIS Safety Data Sheets on these chemicals are available to anyone who requests them from HSD. The division says they want to continue to help parents understand what they’re doing.

“We use the fogging or sanitization spray overnight in a manner that accounts for dry time, so it is dried and cured by the time kids come back to school,” says Amos.

Parental Response

Parents are reacting to the division’s protocols in various ways. Many still express a high level of concern, especially with COVID-19 cases rising across the province. However, most still agree that the benefits of sending kids to school outweighs the social isolation and complications that come with keeping kids at home.

Amanda Kipe is a parent of two students at Niverville Middle School. She says the transition to school initially went very well for her boys. Now that the first cases of COVID-19 have appeared, she continues to feel confident in the division’s handling of the situation.

“With a child in Grade Five and myself having a compromised immune system, the [local cases] did give me a start,” Kipe says. “However, I… want to believe the people in charge have more knowledge than me on what might be best regarding contacting the cohort or if the case is a close contact or not. And so far, we have been fortunate and have not had the sniffles or any sore throats ourselves.”

It is yet to be seen how many families in Niverville and Landmark will opt for the at-home learning option recently made available. However, the Kipes have decided to continue with in-person learning at school.

“My kids thrive in school and in a structured environment where they can also see their friends,” the mother explains. “It is hard to manage [at-home learning] when working full-time at home. In my opinion, I think Hanover is handling things well with their open communication and preparedness.”

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