Province optimistic Manitoba students will be back to in-person learning by September

The province hopes to have students back to in-person learning for the start of the next school year, Manitoba’s education minister said on Thursday.

Cliff Cullen says he’s optimistic that after a school year that will end with remote learning for many Manitoba students, they’ll be back in their desks in September.

“Clearly the vaccination rates are heading in the right direction. We’re optimistic we will get more students vaccinated over the course of the summer. Obviously we’re waiting for approvals for some of the younger students as well,” he said at a news conference.

So far, only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved in Canada for people age 12 to 15. No vaccine has yet been approved here for those under 12.

In spite of the rising vaccination rate, schools are preparing for various scenarios for the start of the new school year, depending on Manitoba’s public health situation at that point.

Final details for reopening schools will be made public in August.

“We are planning for contingencies and worst-case situations. We’re optimistic for the best, but also have to plan for other situations and other scenarios,” Cullen said.

“We don’t really know what September will look like.”

Cullen said kids who are advised by their doctor not to return to school will be able to access the province’s kindergarten to Grade 8 remote learning support centre — an online portal that offers a range of support for students and teachers working remotely.

The province is earmarking $5 million for the support centre, which the province believes will support 1,000 students.

Province demanding school data

Meanwhile, the province is continuing to move ahead with its planned education reforms, including a plan to replace elected school boards with a centralized authority.

The government asked all school divisions and school boards in the middle of June to compile data by the end of the day Thursday, which Cullen said will help the province make informed decisions when Bill 64, the Education Modernization Act, is passed in legislature.

The data includes information about non-classroom-related positions and their responsibilities, said Alan Campbell, the president of the Manitoba School Boards Association.

“It’s an amazing request by a department that’s been completely open about its plan to dissolve school divisions and create chaos,” Campbell said.

The demand is “tone deaf,” Cambell says, because teachers and school administrators have been extremely busy helping students move through the last month of what’s been a challenging school year.

Opposition to Bill 64 is showing up in the form of lawn signs, like this one put out by the Manitoba NDP. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

But Cullen says his Progressive Conservative government is being proactive and planning ahead for a new education system.

“We would be remiss if we weren’t preparing for the transition phase to get ready for the new governance model and what education will look like past Bill 64,” he said.

He added that the data request is within the province’s rights.

Bill 64 critics need to ‘do their homework’: Cullen

Opposition Leader Wab Kinew calls the move “undemocratic” because the bill hasn’t yet been through its second reading in the legislature.

“They’re not even waiting for that bill to pass. They’re already moving ahead with that consolidation and cut plan right now, which to me is going to be damaging to schools,” the NDP leader said.

“It is very, very clear that they’re not listening to the widespread opposition to Bill 64 and the cuts that go with it,” Kinew said.

Cullen, though, said critics of the bill should “do their homework,” arguing their issues with the planned overhaul are rooted in misinformation.

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