Province may extend winter break for Manitoba students by extra 2 weeks

The Manitoba government is thinking of extending the winter break at schools by an additional two weeks as it tries to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said officials may expand the break for an additional two weeks — equivalent to a full COVID-19 incubation period, or the span in which somebody who contracted the illness might spread it to someone else.

Roussin acknowledged that no matter his messaging, social gatherings are still likely over the holidays.  

“We know it’s going to be challenging for people and probably there will be gatherings that occur,” he said at a Tuesday news conference.

A prolonged holiday “may be able to give us an incubation period after a large amount of gathering and maybe offset” some transmission.

Other provinces, including B.C. and Quebec, are also mulling a longer break over the holidays. 

‘Advance notice would be helpful:’ premier

Premier Brian Pallister said no decision has been made, but if the province goes ahead with extending the break, he wants to ensure parents making child-care arrangements have a heads-up.

“I agree with your observation that advance notice would be helpful,” he told a reporter Tuesday, “even though it won’t help with, I expect, vacation planning for anybody.”

Students are so far scheduled to start their Christmas break on Dec. 18 and return on Jan. 4.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said a longer holiday raises important questions in regard to child-care arrangements.

“Does this mean we’re going to extend the school year by two weeks, or is this government finally going to hire more teachers and allow the students who have sacrificed so much to be able to get all the learning that they need in the second half of the school year?”

WATCH | Province considers extending K-12 break by two weeks:

Manitoba might give students a full month off over the winter break, all to try and get COVID-19 cases under control. 1:52

Roussin has maintained for weeks that schools are relatively safe from COVID-19. In the vast majority of reported cases in schools, the virus was acquired in the community, not within an educational setting, he has said.

On a video call Monday night with opposition members of the legislature, he was asked by NDP education critic Nello Altomare what may prompt the closure of schools. Roussin pointed to the climbing rate of community transmission as something that cannot be dismissed.

“Even though schools are proving to be quite safe, the more and more pressure you put on them, the more challenging it is,” Roussin said at the meeting, a recording of which was obtained by CBC News.

One public health nurse normally has the capacity to do contact tracing for four positive cases in a day, Roussin said, but can only trace one positive case if the individual attends a school.

Roussin added that COVID-19 surveillance testing for patients admitted to the Health Sciences Centre Children’s Hospital appears to demonstrate there isn’t significant evidence of asymptomatic youth carrying the virus. 

A Lorette mother of twin boys says she thinks lengthening the winter break could help prevent schools from turning into virus incubators.

“I think it is a pretty good idea to give a bit of a buffer before we start sending everybody back,” said Julie Allard.

She said her family can manage the longer break, but she’ll likely toss in some education activities for her sons, who are in Grade 2, because four weeks is a long time without school.

Northern travellers may be restricted from coming south

Roussin also said on the call that the province may consider expanding its ban on travel into northern Manitoba, which was recently reinstated.

Like a similar ban imposed in the spring, the latest travel restriction limits travel to the area north of the 53rd parallel, with some exceptions, such as people considered essential workers. Roussin said the ban may be adjusted to also restrict travel from the north to southern Manitoba.

“There’s been calls that a lot of northern communities want us to restrict travel from the north as well, because a lot of [the spread in the north] is [from] their community members traveling down to Winnipeg and then back up north,” Roussin said.  

During the meeting, Roussin and other health officials tried to convey that the province has a handle on the worsening COVID-19 crisis.

The wild card, however, is the number of health-care workers, especially if the trajectory of COVID-19 cases rises.

“At the end of the day, your care is limited by the staff,” said Dr. Perry Gray, the chief medical officer for Manitoba Shared Health.

His colleague, Chief Nursing Officer Lanette Siragusa, touted a team-based staffing approach, which reassigns other workers to support the existing critical-care staff. 

Efforts to bring bolster staff levels with retirees, students and volunteers are ongoing, she said. She added that Red River College is developing a micro-credit course to train health-care assistants that can be deployed to personal care homes. 

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