Six months ago, I spoke to a nurse at one of Winnipeg’s hardest-hit hospitals in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. She described unsafe working conditions made worse by limited staffing, long work hours, and other shortages resulting from the provincial government’s cuts to health care, and exacerbated by a premier who seems to believe he is not directly responsible for the health and wellness of Manitobans during a once-in-a-century global health crisis. Since then, 1,000 Manitobans have died of COVID-19.
While the province’s health care system grapples with a wave of new infections, another major public institution has been on the verge of collapse—Manitoba’s public education system. Indeed, the decline of Manitoba’s education sector amidst the pandemic tells much the same story: chronic funding cuts, widespread layoffs, and burn out have created a perfect storm. Educators are exhausted and worried things could get much worse, even in life after the pandemic.
On Friday, May 7, the province announced its second-highest case count in a single day: 502 new cases of COVID-19, 70 percent of which were among those 30 years of age and younger. In response, the Pallister government introduced new restrictions, ignoring pleas from teachers and doctors who had been imploring the province for weeks to immediately vaccinate teachers, school staff, and childcare workers, introduce a temporary lockdown (including closing schools), and implement paid sick leave (no, the province’s shoddy half-measure does not count).
Regrettably, the premier chose to look the other way, shift the blame, and outright lie to embellish his record.
Yes, COVID-19 is in Manitoba’s schools
Annie*, an early years educator in one of Winnipeg’s public schools, says it’s time for our decision-makers to wake up. “Schools aren’t safe. Staff don’t feel safe,” she told Canadian Dimension. “Transmission is happening in schools despite our constant efforts to prevent it from happening. It is still happening.”
Indeed, despite rising COVID cases in schools, students from kindergarten to Grade 3 are exempt from the province-wide mask mandate.
At the time of writing, students in Annie’s class, who have now been temporarily moved to three weeks of remote learning, are not required by law to wear masks in the classroom. She says only about five of her 22 students wear a mask on a regular basis. “Of course, I am required to wear my own mask,” she says, “but that only protects the students if I were ill. What is protecting educators?”
And when teachers inevitably do need to get tested, self-isolate, or happen to contract COVID-19, the acute shortage of substitute teachers means that filling these absences is challenging, to say the least. “On many occasions, there is more than one teacher absent per day,” Annie explains. “If the school division is unable to fill the absence, it becomes the school’s job to find coverage within their own teaching staff. This is neither practical nor sustainable.”
Sadly, none of this is new information.
Early warning signs
As early as August 2020, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS) was calling on the province to hire more substitute teachers as school divisions had a hard time maintaining a robust pool even before the pandemic. By September 30, substitute teachers were already in short supply.
In October, Safe September Manitoba, a grassroots advocacy group, demanded that the province offer immediate funding to “hire extra teachers, reduce class sizes, and provide publicly funded remote learning opportunities for the duration of the pandemic for all families who want that option—with teachers assigned specifically for that purpose.”
Ironically, the majority of the funding that was announced by then Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen in August 2020 was accumulated by laying off support staff, educational assistants, and administrators during the early months of the pandemic.
It took less than two months for the first school in Winnipeg to shut down due to an outbreak. On October 29, 2020, Collège Louis-Riel moved to remote learning for two weeks. This was already the fourth outbreak at a Manitoba school. “As the case numbers continued to rise,” Annie says, “I could only wonder how long until there would be a case at our school, a place that many staff and students consider a second home.”
Manitobans heard stories of teachers who ate their lunch in their car because that was the safest place for them to be. Others would go to their vehicles on their breaks to cry. Teachers were exhausted. And this was only after only two months.
By November—while hospital ICUs were bursting at the seams—Manitoba’s public education system was also on the verge of collapse. Hundreds of teachers, support staff, and administrative leaders urged the province to increase funding to schools, and more than 900 parents signed an open letter demanding the provincial government respond to the pandemic’s catastrophic impact on Manitoba’s schools. Their calls went unanswered.
Adding insult to injury
For teachers, the early months of 2021 brought more of the same: uncertainty, anxiety, and neglect from elected officials. To make matters worse, the Progressive Conservatives unveiled their long-awaited response to the education review, calling for sweeping changes to the system.
In announcing the 2021-22 budget, Cliff Cullen, the newly-appointed education minister, claimed the reforms represented the “highest dollar investment in Manitoba’s education history.” This was technically not untrue, but the base funding improvement of 0.5 percent is far less than the typical two percent cost increases due to inflation annually, according to Manitoba School Boards Association president Alan Campbell. In reality, almost half of Manitoba school divisions are projected to receive less funding in 2022.
The budget also announced the province would freeze education property taxes. While Cullen offered school divisions a grant of $22.8 million to offset the revenue loss this year, the freeze will destabilize funding in the long run.
Then there’s Bill 64, the dubiously titled Education Modernization Act.
If passed, Bill 64 will amalgamate Manitoba’s 37 school divisions into 15 regions overseen by a provincial oversight body. The incoming, centralized “Provincial Education Authority” will be made up of politically-appointed members. Bill 64 will also eliminate elected school boards and trustees and remove principals and vice principals from the union, which many experts say will erode both public transparency and accountability.
The Education Modernization Act has been widely criticized. Thousands of parents signed an open letter in opposition to the reforms they claim would effectively “dismantle” the public education system. They see Bill 64 as a clear move towards an Americanized private charter system focused on results-based learning.
Adding even more pressure on the education system, at the beginning of April, the province announced a two-year wage freeze for non-teaching staff including educational assistants, custodians, and bus drivers—the lowest paid, most precariously employed staff in the sector.
What’s more, teachers cannot legally take job action to protest these repeated assaults: they gave up the right to strike in 1956 in exchange for a system of binding arbitration.
Denying transmission in schools is futile
Since the pandemic began, teachers have been told that schools are safe and a place of low transmission by public health officials and the education minister alike. As cases of COVID-19 variants began to skyrocket in April 2021, Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s Chief Provincial Public Health Officer, argued the increase was due to “out-of-school gatherings.”
He has repeatedly denied that transmission of the virus is occurring in schools. But this is hard to quantify as there hasn’t been any dedicated information-gathering or surveillance of cases in Manitoba schools. Moreover, Roussin’s line of argument does not address the fact that any presence of COVID-19 in schools is liable for transmission and actively puts educators at risk every time they enter their classrooms. Remember that teachers were never prioritized in the province’s vaccine rollout.
MTS president James Bedford echoed this point, saying “students may not yet be contracting COVID-19 in school, but that doesn’t mean they’re not potentially coming into schools infected by the virus and potentially spreading it to those who work in schools.” As epidemiologist Cynthia Carr put it, “the reality is that schools are in communities and schools are not immune to the spread that’s in the community.”
Even when educators and parents do everything they can to prevent the spread, it is still happening. Schools have continued to operate under “Code Orange” guidelines during the entirety of the pandemic while the rest of the province has been in “Code Red.” As it stands right now, there are currently 213 schools with active COVID-19 cases. Seventeen public schools in Manitoba moved to remote learning as of May 8.
In an unusual Sunday afternoon press conference, the government announced that all kindergarten to Grade 12 students in Winnipeg and Brandon will move to full remote learning from May 12 to 30. This announcement comes after months of calls from teachers, parents, and unions to move learning online. Roussin still maintained that transmission had not been “nearly as high in classrooms as it’s been outside of them.”
Months of teaching both remotely and in-person has been a near-impossible workload for teachers. An effective doubling of their responsibilities “on top of teaching and supporting students,” Annie says, “we are now expected to leave our in-person students for an hour a day to teach our students who opted into remote learning. This means that another ‘available’ teacher (Resource Guidance Counsellor, Reading Recovery staff, Student Teachers) is expected to cover for us while we teach online.” Many of these support staff are those whose wages have just been frozen.
Meanwhile, Manitoba now has the second-highest daily infection rate in all of North America.
A year of missteps
This school year has been rife with problems and educators have been forced to make do.
Teachers in Manitoba were sent back to school in September, even though COVID-19 case numbers were higher than they were from March to June 2020 when all schools were operating remotely.
Despite this, teachers like Annie were hopeful. “I hoped my division had the funding and constant supply of sanitizer, cleaning liquids, and medical masks for students and staff,” she recalls. “More so, I hoped that my students and I would remain healthy. I hoped that I could still have the personal relationship with my students that enables learning to happen.”
In November 2020, schools were given decade-old, expired masks from the H1N1 epidemic that caused rashes and skin irritations.
Annie meticulously set up her classroom this year. No more communal resources meant she had to purchase additional supplies for her students from a designated classroom budget in order to provide learners with their own tools for the year. “I labelled every pencil, pencil crayon, crayon, marker, glue stick, and pair of scissors in 22 students’ individual bins in order to prevent accidental sharing,” she recounts.
Last month, Pallister said it didn’t bother him “at all” that teachers paid out-of-pocket for classroom supplies.
Most recently, the premier told teachers to drive to North Dakota to receive a vaccination, presenting it not “as a burden but an opportunity.”
This highlights the Pallister government’s clear pattern of deliberate, callous disrespect for the people responsible for teaching the future of the province.
Throughout the pandemic, his actions have never been in the best interests of teachers. They have been focused solely on the economy. That’s why the government will not close schools for any meaningful amount of time. If they did, the Conservatives would have to then admit that transmission is occurring in schools and fund either universal child care or paid sick days for all Manitobans.
Closing schools means people would have to stay home to look after their kids. To meaningfully address what is currently happening in our schools would therefore necessitate systemic solutions.
But the decision to close schools now is about the Pallister government saving both face and money in the short term. After all, experts know it’s too late for a three-week school closure to make any real impact.
Indeed, as Annie explains, things are only going to get worse:
As a teacher, our bucket is always full. We spend so much of our own personal time planning, preparing, communicating with parents and, quite honestly, just thinking about the wellbeing of the students in our classroom.
We are more than educators. When we step into the school in the morning, we are advocates, coaches, parents, counsellors, problem-solvers, and mentors.
Our bucket has tipped over. Educators are mentally and physically exhausted. We are burnt out. It is evident if you walk into any school this year.
It is difficult to feel good about teaching right now.Manitoba teachers want to be heard. They want to feel validated. They want to feel supported. If you know someone in the education system in Manitoba, ask them what you can do to help.
We aren’t okay.
Annie is a pseudonym. The early years teacher agreed to speak with Canadian Dimension under the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Rebecca Hume (she/they) is a settler living on Treaty 1 lands, the homeland of the Métis Nation. She is a freelance researcher and community organizer in so-called Winnipeg. You can find her on Twitter @rebshume.