On July 30th, the Manitoba government announced its plan to reopen schools on September 8th. Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen declared “The clear objective is that we are able to return students to in-class learning while providing an environment that strives to protect all those who are in the school.” But will the government’s plan really be able to meet this objective?
Broadly speaking, the government seeks to return students to school more or less full-time without providing any additional funding to school divisions to carry out necessary upgrades to staffing, ventilation, and safety equipment.
Who was consulted in drafting this plan? Can we reasonably expect this plan will be viable for students, parents and teachers? Will this plan protect against the spread of COVID-19? Is this plan sustainable?
Parents and teachers both want a safe school reopening. But we are hearing many voices expressing doubt about the plan. Among the legitimate concerns raised:
- Many schools are already overcrowded with no room to ensure the physical distancing required for safe reopening;
- Children are extremely social. Elementary school-aged children will not be able to safely social distance in large groups, even if there is room to do so;
- Going outside for classes is only an option in some weather and if space is available. Holding classes outside is not feasible for all school locations. Many classroom resources are not available outside;
- Simply streaming classroom teaching, as the plan’s Level 2 or 3 scenarios lay out is not effective. Remote teaching needs a dedicated teacher to plan and execute specialized remote lessons. Teachers found remote teaching in the spring to be extremely difficult to facilitate, as oversight of students by and large fell to parents and was impossible for many parents to consistently provide;
- Masks have recently been made mandatory for grades 4 to 12 without providing funding for supports to increase social distancing;
- Cohorts of 75 students are too large for school staff to realistically manage. Cohorts of this size are intended to make contact tracing easier, not to limit the extent of an outbreak;
- No extra funding has been announced to cover extra costs involved in reducing class sizes;
Studies indicate children over the age of 10 can contract and spread the virus as effectively as adults. Recently Manitoba has reported several cases of children under 10 years of age contracting COVID-19.
Once the virus enters a school, it is reasonable to expect asymptomatic children will transmit it within their cohort and to adults. It is unclear what provisions will be made to ensure proper separation of staff when staff facilities such as bathrooms are limited, mostly to two gender-separate bathrooms for all staff. Sometimes there is only one gender-neutral bathroom in a school, which both students and staff use.
Although there are ways in which returning to school is good for children, that’s not really why governments are pushing for school reopening. Parents and teachers definitely want schools to reopen. They only ask that the reopening be logistically sound and as safe as possible.
The PCs vs public education
This begs the question: If the well-being of children is really their main concern, why does the Manitoba government underfund public education, and why does it align with public education’s sworn enemies? In April and May 2020, Minister Goertzen was the sole Canadian politician to attended video conferences held by Global Home Education Exchange. He gave two presentations to the conference, which was attended by pro-private education advocates from around the globe, including U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Joachim Kuhs, a member of Germany’s far-right, nationalist AfD (Alternative For Germany) party.
The disdain the religious right holds for public schools is no secret. That they happen to wield significant influence in Goertzen’s riding of Steinbach speaks to where Goertzen’s priorities lie. In February 2019, Goertzen attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C., a major evangelical event which featured a keynote address from President Donald Trump. This government was not shy about telegraphing their intentions to defund health care in their previous term. Now they are not concealing their hand with regard to their intentions for education. That Goertzen was the health minister last term tells us all we need to know about the government’s intentions for public education. To think that the pandemic will deter them is naive.
Parents and teachers have good reasons for wanting children to return to school. But we should never doubt that this government will seize on good reasons in order to impose their own agenda, which is to enrich their business-owning friends.
The Manitoba government was proceeding full steam ahead with austerity measures prior to the outbreak of the pandemic and has taken advantage of the crisis to further this agenda. Premier Brian Pallister has repeatedly criticized the minimal federal measures implemented to assist working people and students while bemoaning how these measures prevent businesses from luring vulnerable workers back to low-paying menial jobs. Haphazardly reopening schools follows this playbook. Instead of spending the money needed to make public schools as safe as possible, the government is pushing for reopening schools as cheaply as possible. Pallister would rather offer the Canadian Football League $2.5 million to play games in Winnipeg than buy handwashing stations for school children during a pandemic.
The PCs’ immediate goal is to get more parents back to work. If lots more parents decide to homeschool their children out of fear of COVID-19 in the schools, so much the better for the PCs – under current rules, fewer students registered at the end of September will mean less funding for public schools.
Unfortunately, the Manitoba Teachers Society (MTS) neglected to consult teachers in any meaningful way prior to the announcement of the reopening plan. The lack of leadership from the teachers’ union is striking and calls into question the priorities of its executive. If they had a seat at the table when the reopening plan was drafted, what was their contribution? How can MTS effectively represent members if they didn’t even take the time to include them in the consultation process? These were the same leaders responsible for MTS hosting Goertzen at the union’s last AGM, where he was given 45 minutes to speak and teachers weren’t permitted to ask questions.
A few short weeks ago we had the consolation of a low number of COVID-19 cases in Manitoba. As the start of school approaches, case numbers continue to climb. Gains made during lockdown have been wasted. Bending the knee to business, this government has reopened without the kind of public health measures needed to minimize transmission. Now students and school staff are to be sacrificed to capitalism, and they won’t be the only ones to get sick as the virus spreads.
Fight for a plan of our own!
This government cannot be trusted to reopen schools safely. We need to counter their faulty reopening plan with a plan of our own. A plan that accomplishes what austerity cannot. Manitobans deserve a safe and sustainable back-to-school plan for September that supports public education for the long haul and meets the needs of all students, families, teachers, staff, and community members.
Safe September MB, a group of concerned teachers and parents, has put together demands for a safe reopening (see https://www.change.org/p/manitoba-premier-brian-pallister-manitobans-for-a-safe-return-to-school-in-september).
Let’s do whatever we can to fight for these demands, including by building for Safe September MB’s rally in Winnipeg August 27.
We know a safe return to school is possible — other countries have demonstrated this. We also know it is possible to challenge unsafe reopenings and win. It is not enough to make rational arguments; we know this government is not swayed by sound reasoning. They are motivated by an ideological commitment to serve capitalism by any means necessary. We need grassroots mobilization and mass protest to force changes.
In Chicago, where teachers went on strike in 2019, the Chicago Teachers Union only had to call for a strike vote to win their demand for remote learning. This victory was made possible by a highly organized rank and file, by teachers having the right to strike, and by having the backing of parents.
We lack some of these conditions in Manitoba. Teachers here do not have the legal right to strike and are neither organized nor militant. Significant support from parents does exist and will need to be harnessed if a safe reopening is to be won here. Strong support from parents and other people will also help teachers who want to change the MTS from the bottom up.
This PC government has been known to bend to heavy pressure. Now they appear to be making small concessions. This should encourage us to turn up the pressure. We have a real opportunity to push this government into providing a truly safe, sustainable and ethical school reopening this September.
Even if we are unable to win a safe reopening, the possibility of winning concessions throughout the school year and beating back future attacks remains. We can use this fight to bring together people who support public education and effective measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. It could also bring together teachers to starting working for change inside MTS.
We know what this government will do when it doesn’t face active mass opposition. They’ve shown their hand with cuts to healthcare in their first term, and with how their first response to the pandemic was austerity. Now is the time to fight for public education in Manitoba. Now is the time to organize. People over profit!