Students Deserve a Normal School Year

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

The Manitoba government recently released its back-to-school plan. As with all COVID-related things, people are bitterly divided on the merits of this plan.

Before jumping into this debate, I propose we accept two premises.

First, everyone wants students to be safe, and second, everyone wants students to be able to learn.

It’s easy to lose sight of these premises when looking at the harsh rhetoric, particularly on social media. Critics of the government have raised serious concerns about the safety of students. They believe that the back-to-school plan will put students at risk.

Most of the opposition has focused on the government’s decision to turn the mask requirement into a mask recommendation. In light of the highly transmissible delta variant, proponents of a mask mandate say that it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to the new variants of COVID-19.

But there is another angle that needs to be considered. With every COVID protocol we impose on schools, we make the learning environment less authentic and more artificial. 

For example, not only do masks interfere with normal human interaction, but they also make life miserable for anyone with a hearing disability who relies on lip-reading.  Masks might be a minor inconvenience for some students, but they are a significant hardship for others. 

The reality is that there is no easy way to emerge safely from a global pandemic. 

Different people have different tolerance levels for risk. Some would prefer to remain in lockdown until we reach “COVID Zero” while others think that we should have never put any restrictions in place at all.

Fortunately, things are improving in Manitoba. More than 80 percent of eligible Manitobans have received their first dose of a COVID vaccine while nearly three-quarters are fully vaccinated. This is one of the best vaccination rates on the continent.

The benefits of vaccines are obvious. COVID-related hospitalizations are dropping, case counts are relatively low, and the death rate has plummeted. As Dr. Brent Roussin stated in a recent op-ed, if we cannot begin to ease restrictions now, when would we?

Parents and teachers need to remember that there is no such thing as a risk-free learning environment. Even before COVID, schools had to balance safety rules with allowing students to learn and play freely. 

For example, there would likely be fewer injuries at school if the province cancelled all outdoor recess breaks and kept students sitting in their desks. That decision would, of course, make for a miserable day for students. They might be safer, but they wouldn’t be happier.

Obviously, the risk of COVID-19 transmission is quite different from the risk of playground injuries. But the basic decision-making principle is the same. When making rules, schools need to balance physical safety with the emotional wellbeing of students.

In addition, Manitoba is not the only province loosening COVID protocols in schools. The other Western provinces have begun to transition from public health orders to public health recommendations. In fact, Saskatchewan and Alberta have already dropped virtually all of their restrictions.

Manitoba students deserve at least the same quality of education as students rec

Vaccines are a key part of ending this pandemic. Now that most Manitobans are fully vaccinated, it’s time to start getting back to normal. This includes students in school.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.