Manitoba provides back-to-school guide for parents and teachers

WINNIPEG — Manitoba has laid out more details for parents and teachers about what can be expected when kids are back in classrooms next week and how schools are to respond to cases of COVID-19.

"There is a lot of anticipation about the Sept. 8 start date, but there's also a lot of anxiousness," Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said Wednesday.

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He said an information package posted on the government's website will help answer some of the most frequently asked questions from parents and teachers.

The package provides more details to what has already been announced by the government over the past two months. It includes a guide for parents, information on the use of masks and a COVID-19 screening guide to identify signs and symptoms of the illness.

The province has said masks will be mandatory for students and staff in Grades 4 to 12 and in classes where physical distancing of two metres cannot be maintained.

There is also information on how public health and schools will respond if a student tests positive for the novel coronavirus.

"Everyone is working to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Manitoba, but we will see cases linked to schools," Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer, said in a letter to parents included in the information.

If health officials confirm a positive case in a school, contact tracing is to begin within 24 hours. Close contacts of a student will be advised to self-isolate and whether testing is necessary.

Health officials are also to inform the school and other parents will be notified if there was a risk the child was infectious inside the classroom.

The province also says it will be up to health officials to inform families when students can return to school after they have quarantined.

Manitoba has had some of the lowest numbers of COVID-19 cases in the country. But infections have increased significantly over the past month, with multiple outbreaks linked to Hutterite colonies and employees at a meat-processing plant in Brandon. Health officials recently warned the amount of community transmission in Brandon and Winnipeg is on the rise.

On Wednesday, the province reported 13 new cases, with eight of them in the Prairie Mountain Health Region, which includes Brandon.

The province has developed colour codes that can impose harsher restrictions on specific communities, business sectors and schools.

The Prairie Mountain region was placed under more strict conditions in August due to an increase in cases. However, schools are to open in the area with the same rules as elsewhere.

The Opposition New Democrats have criticized the Progressive Conservative government for not making class sizes smaller or investing in mental health clinicians and other supports. NDP leader Wab Kinew said the detailed information should also have been provided sooner.

"Parents are being asked to do a ton more homework this year than any year before," Kinew said. "The government, just a few days before school is open, is now finally sharing their plans."

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont echoed those concerns.

"It's a little bit like somebody who waits too long and tries to slip their essay under the door of the (professor) before midnight," Lamont said.

Goertzen said he understands parents have concerns, but it's important for children's education and social development that they return to school.

"The best place for a child's learning is in the classroom."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 2, 2020

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