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During a time in which COVID-19 is a greater threat in Manitoba than it was when schools initially closed due to the pandemic, the province is ushering youths back to the classroom.
On the day schools closed — March 23 — there were 18 active cases in Manitoba.
There were 76 active cases on Thursday, when the province announced their school-reopening plan.
Much has changed between these two dates, and we now know a lot more about COVID-19. We know that approximately half of coronavirus cases are asymptomatic, according to a lab testing in Iceland. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated this number to be approximately 35 per cent, while 80 per cent of those infected on a cruise ship showed no symptoms.
We also know that the virus spreads much more readily indoors and that mask use drastically cuts down on its spread. During the pandemic’s early days, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, actually advised against the wearing of masks, but she has since changed her tune as more information came forward.
None of this new knowledge points to now as being an ideal time for schools to reopen, nor does it indicate the province’s approach goes far enough to mitigate the virus’s spread.
Despite what we know about the importance of masks, for example, their use will not be mandatory in Manitoba schools.
The Manitoba NDP offered an alternative back-to-school strategy this week, proposing a $26-million investment with the federal government that calls for 400 additional teachers to be hired to accommodate smaller class sizes of 15 students, the purchase of PPE, cleaning supplies and other supports.
While the government’s current plan includes greater reliance on remote learning for high schoolers, the province has imposed no limits on class sizes. At the same time, it’s worth noting that elementary schools will be broken up into 75-person cohorts (groups that might come into contact).
Various other restrictions and safety measures will be thrown into the mix, but let’s face it: few young kids will give a hoot about social distancing when they’re in the company of friends they haven’t seen in a while. As any perpetually sick parent will tell you, youngsters are hands-on socializers.
Manitoba’s attitude regarding schools’ reopening is rather lax compared to some other jurisdictions.
According to the news website Vox, students in New South Wales, a territory in Australia, are returning to class one day per week and continue learning online for the balance of the time.
Vietnamese students are wearing masks and returning to classrooms only after passing daily mandatory temperature checks at their schools’ entrances.
To our west, Saskatchewan’s plan remains in the air, and to our east, Ontario’s plan is stricter than ours, with non-medical masks mandatory for students from grades 4 to 12 and students and school staff given medical-grade masks.
Israel offers a cautionary tale, in that schools reopened May 17 after reporting only 10 new cases that day. They now see approximately 1,500 per day. It’s difficult to point the blame at any one cause, but this example goes to show how easily things can turn around for the worse.
At the same time, officials in Québec are calling their return-to-school plan a success. Approximately half of public school students returned to class on June 5, with students up to Grade 10 placed in bubbles of up to six children who didn’t have to maintain social distancing. They reported 53 students and teachers were diagnosed with COVID-19, but that the majority of these cases occurred outside the classroom.
It’s difficult to say what the winning solution will be, and sadly, we probably won’t know until it’s too late for those who employ the losing plan.
It’s all about weighing pros and cons, though we’d argue that if the province has millions to throw around to show appreciation for front-line workers and $45 million to shore up votes by handing $200 cheques to seniors, they should have had the funds to cover the Manitoba NDP’s $26-million plan, which would better set us up for success.
As the number of infected people continues to rise on a daily basis, we can’t help but wonder whether reopening our schools will usher in a dreaded spike — perhaps even a second wave. A little more caution and investment in the government’s reopening plan would help put us at a little more ease.
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