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Manitoba's education system is at a "breaking point" and collapse is imminent, a group of nearly 500 teachers wrote in a letter to the province demanding immediate support to address COVID-19 safety concerns.

The letter describes emotional exhaustion and burnout stemming from a combination of remote and in-person learning, the inability to fill vacancies due to a shrinking pool of substitute teachers and principals doing preliminary contact tracing because public health officials were dealing with a backlog.

"Teachers and education staff have reached capacity with regards to physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Our ability to continue supporting our students and families is in jeopardy — this is our breaking point and collapse of our system is imminent," states a Nov. 8 letter addressed to Premier Brian Pallister and Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen.

The letter uses the term "breaking point" six times describing deficiencies in the system.

Nearly 500 educators — teachers, educational assistants and other staff, including principals, counsellors and school pshychologists — have signed the letter that says the current situation in Manitoba schools is unsustainable amid a rising COVID-19 case count and death toll.

The letter says teachers have repeatedly pivoted and redefined education for upwards of 210,000 students in the province since March and that in the summertime, educators appealed to officials to ensure funding and policy would benefit students’ health and education.

Many of their requests echo those made by Safe September MB, a coalition of educators, parents and community members that called for additional support for back-to-school.

Among the demands: reducing class sizes by hiring more staff; a "golden universal standard" of two metres of distancing for all students; clear policy for substitute teacher recruitment and retention; digital equity for students and staff who need access to devices; and school ventilation upgrades.

The signatories also endorse prompt testing and contact tracing for staff and students and consistent public messaging and data about COVID-19 exposures in schools.

"In August, it was announced that $85.4 million in federal taxpayer funds would be put into the coffers of the legislature to support education. We have yet to see substantial improved conditions with this public fund, and any sizable action to the bulleted key policy and funding areas listed above," states the letter.

"We need education and clear guidelines. We need consistent messaging from our leadership during the most challenging of times, not only when restrictions are being lifted. We need to know, through action, policy, and funding, that we are valued, valuable, and are being listened to."

Drawing a comparison to concerns raised by doctors, nurses and other front-line workers, the teachers added they need immediate "critical support and leadership" from the province right away. The letter notes a recent study out of the University of Winnipeg found teacher coping levels, relative to stress during the pandemic disruptions, reached an all-time deficit in late September.

In a statement on the Manitoba Teachers’ Society website, president James Bedford said the union welcomed the letter and shares educators’ concerns.

"MTS has repeatedly called for the release of federal funds intended specifically to address our schools’ pandemic-related needs," Bedford said. "While that money has flowed in other provinces, it has trickled, at best, here in Manitoba."

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie