Manitoba has announced its possible "back to school" program for the 2021-22 school year. In essence, school divisions need to hope for the best and plan for the worst.
Once schools open back up Sept. 7, students and staff will need to follow basic COVID-19 protocols, starting the year at a “yellow” level according to the provincial pandemic response system. All people in schools will be asked to follow what the province calls “COVID-safe basics” - washing hands, screening for symptoms, staying home when sick and keeping distanced when possible. Cohorting will continue to be used for students from Kindergarten-Grade 6, with a move away from cohorts possible later in the year.
Masks will be strongly recommended from health officials and supplied by schools, but the province is not masking mask use mandatory in schools.
“Masks are recommended for all students, staff and visitors. Public health officials will continue to monitor closely and will adjust guidance as needed. Masks and personal protective equipment will be available to schools for use,” reads the province’s plan.
Further health measures, including possible returns to remote learning, are possible depending on COVID-19 case loads, either in a particularly community, region or throughout the province. For the start of the year, however, those are not in the cards. School entrance times will need to remain staggered, while practices for disinfecting and cleaning surfaces will no longer be needed everywhere – only in bathrooms. Younger students will now be able to share toys again while at school and extracurricular activities – including sports – and field trips will be allowed as long as they fit within existing public health orders.
The province has also announced another $58 million in funding toward what it calls "supporting Safe Schools" - when broke down, the money will mean $40 million for additional staffing, technology and health and safety protocols, another $6 million for masks and PPE and $5 million set aside for remote learning for immunocompromised students in Kindergarten-Grade 8. The remaining $2 million will be set aside as "contingency funding".
“After 18 months of facing the global impacts of COVID-19, Manitoba is on the road to reopening, including schools with near normal,” said Manitoba education minister Cliff Cullen in an August 5 announcement.
“Children returning to full-time in-person learning is an example of a transition to a post-pandemic Manitoba and a return to normal life.”
Manitoba chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said that COVID-19 is far from being over, but higher vaccine uptake and lower case rates will make things safer for people in schools.
“I think we all have to be aware that a fourth wave is coming, that COVID-19 is not going away, but we do have the fundamentals at our disposal. We have increasing vaccine rates. As we move forward, we really want to keep the kids in school as much as possible.”
Part of the back-to-school plan will be ramping up vaccinations for eligible students, with immunization teams beginning to head to Manitoba schools starting this fall. Only students 12 and up are currently approved by Health Canada to receive vaccine doses and youths ages 12-17 can only receive Pfizer vaccines. As of August 5, the province estimates about 66 per cent of age 12-17 Manitobans have received one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, with about 52 per cent fully vaccinated.
Plans have been made to immunize eligible students, along with a backup plan to immunize children even younger if Health Canada provides approval for younger age groups.
"Immunization teams will attend all schools with students aged 12 to 17 to provide first and second doses, beginning in areas with lower vaccine uptake, to help reduce potential barriers to immunization. Planning is also underway for a school-based campaign for children aged five to 11, once the COVID-19 vaccines are approved for use,” reads the provincial plan.
"School-based clinics will be one of many options available to students and their parents to get a COVID-19 vaccination. Vaccine appointments, community based pop-ups, medical clinics and pharmacies will continue to be options into the school year."
As part of the program, health workers will also provide any other necessary vaccinations for students, including for HPV, hepatitis B, tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis and for meningococcal disease, that they may have missed over the past 18 months.
Despite the push for vaccination against COVID-19, both generally and for in-school environments, the province is not requiring school staff, including teachers, to be fully vaccinated for this school year.