While in-person learning remains the norm in the Brandon School Division, acting superintendent Mathew Gustafson said the pieces are in place to make the transition to full-remote learning if need be.
During a Monday afternoon conversation with the Sun, Gustafson said that BSD officials have been preparing for this contingency since the fall of 2020, making sure proper staff and resources are waiting in the wings if local COVID-19 cases take a particularly nasty turn.
"We got the infrastructure ready to go," he said. "So (that means) computers, web cameras, headsets, document cameras, array mics, routers for families that may not have internet access. And at any point, if we have to go to (full) remote, that’s ready to put in place."
Throughout the last couple of weeks, more and more Manitoba schools have already undergone this transition due to rising COVID-19 health concerns, with the province saying that more than 20 institutions have moved to full-remote learning as of last Friday.
BSD has experienced its own influx of new COVID-19 cases recently, having announced 11 new cases since April 15.
Officials announced two new cases at King George School (in a Grade 3-4 class and a Grade 1 class) and one new case at Crocus Plains Regional Secondary School (in a Grade 10 class) within the last two days alone.
However, Gustafson maintains that the total number of COVID exposures and contacts within the division are still low and isolated, which is why no BSD schools have transitioned to full-remote learning as of right now.
Still, the acting superintendent said this could change in the future if a variety of factors converge, like if they discovered an increased number of close contacts or if a large number of staff members were required to self-isolate at the same time.
"So if some of those multiple things started to come up, we would be in consultation with Manitoba Education and Public Health," he said. "We just haven’t had that happen yet."
Despite sticking to this standard, Gustafson acknowledges that parents’ concerns about their children attending in-person classes are valid, since the province is undoubtedly undergoing a third wave of COVID-19 cases.
However, Gustafson maintains that the division is employing multiple layers of safety protocols to help make in-person learning viable right now, including increased physical distancing, increased use of masks, increased sanitation standards, using separate entrances and minimizing contact between cohorts.
Gustafson also mentioned that BSD is currently offering remote learning for a number of older students in a 50/50 capacity (half remote and half in-person), as well as full-remote learning for pupils with medical exemptions.
"It’s like preparing for the risk of cold weather," he said. "You can dress in layers to protect, but no one layer completely protects. Through multiple measures, we can reduce the risk of transmission and the impact of cohorts."
Recently, several Westman schools made the jump to full-remote learning after Public Health officials discovered a string of new COVID-19 cases within a short period of time.
This includes Boissevain School, which transitioned to full-remote learning on April 5 after the province uncovered three cases over the space of a couple of days.
The Turtle Mountain School Division extended this suspension of in-person learning to April 23 the following week, since the school was enduring more than 10 cases of the virus at that point.
"It evolved very quickly," Supt. Tim De Ruyck said on Monday. "We went from knowing about a couple of cases initially and making plans for particular classes to working remotely to (knowing about) four or five cases. And then, in consultation with Manitoba Education, we felt the best course of action was just to go fully remote for that period of time."
Luckily, the situation at Boissevain School has since stabilized, which allowed staff and students to physically return to the classroom this past week.
De Ruyck said the transition back to in-person learning has been successful so far, which is making him cautiously optimistic about the prospect of putting together some kind of high school graduation ceremony in June.
"We’re still waiting to hear what graduation parameters may be," he said. "We’re hoping to at least do what we did last year, which was an outdoor graduation with people in their vehicles. But we don’t have confirmation yet as to what we’re going to be able to do."
Moving forward, De Ruyck advises other school divisions in Westman to continue consulting with Manitoba Education and Public Health as closely as possible, since this working relationship will help determine the best course of action between remote and in-person learning.
"We just need to continue to be adaptable and flexible and do all we can to maintain continuity with students’ education," he said.
As of Monday evening, the province identified 461 current COVID-19 cases in Manitoba schools for the 14 days prior to April 28, including 171 variants of concern.