Some Manitoba students walk out to protest lack of COVID-19 safety measures

Some Manitoba students walk out to protest lack of COVID-19 safety measures

by Sue Jones
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Students at several schools across Manitoba walked out of their classrooms Monday morning to protest the lack of safety measures to protect them against COVID-19 as they return to in-person learning. 

Student Covid Walk Out Manitoba Legislative Building

Students Erika Lengsadach (right) and Taylor McGillis (left), followed by others, take part in walkout at Gordon Bell High School Monday morning calling for more safeguards against COVID-19 in schools. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Students at several schools across Manitoba walked out of their classrooms Monday morning to protest the lack of safety measures to protect them against COVID-19 as they return to in-person learning. 

In Winnipeg, walkouts began at about 11:30 a.m. at Grant Park High School, Maples Collegiate, Gordon Bell High School, Collège Louis-Riel and Collège Béliveau. Some of the walkouts saw dozens of students participate, while other saw only a few, CBC News reporters observed. 

Ava Byrne, a student at Kelvin High School and one of the organizers of the walkouts, says students want greater access to personal protective equipment and an option to go back to remote learning.

Byrne, who started the Instagram account MB Students for COVID Safety, which has been co-ordinating the walkouts, says she doesn’t feel the province has done enough to keep students safe as they return to class. 

“I really do wish that there was more resources to keep us safe because I think I would certainly feel safer in schools, but now with Omicron and our overburdened hospitals, I just don’t think it’s a good idea to be back in schools,” she said in an interview with Information Morning host Marcy Markusa ahead of the walkouts. 

Byrne says she knows of at least 90 schools where students were planning on walking out of class. 

Maples Collegiate School Walkout

Students at Maples Collegiate assemble after walking out of class Monday morning, one of several walkouts organized in Manitoba calling on greater COVID-19 safety measures in schools. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

At Maples Collegiate, Grade 10 student Elizabeth Terry said she joined the walkout because she doesn’t feel safe in school. She said she wants students to have access to rapid tests and higher quality masks. 

“I feel like it’s just going to become like an outbreak again because there’s so many people and we’re so close together,” she said.

“It feels uncomfortable because I’m so used to being in online school and I feel it’s safer because there’s not a lot of people in our house.”

Some students want to be back

Not all students want to return to remote learning however. 

Marco Soares, a student at Sturgeon Heights Collegiate, said he understands where protesting students are coming from but says he thinks most students are sick of remote learning and want some sense of normalcy in their lives. 

Soares started a petition at the beginning of January asking the province to get kids back in the classroom as fast as possible, and it garnered hundreds of signatures. 

Marco Soares

Marco Soares, a Grade 11 student at Sturgeon Heights Collegiate, started a petition at the beginning of January asking the province to keep students in class. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

“We’ve spent the good majority of our last two years in remote learning. It’s been very hard for a lot of students,” he said. 

Soares said many students find it hard to keep on track while learning remotely, and said the social aspect of being in class is also important for students’ well-being. 

“It’s an essential part of us as humans to socialize, and think that’s a huge pillar in helping us with education,” he said.

In addition to walkouts, some students stopped by the Manitoba Legislature to put signs up for provincial leaders to see. 

That includes University of Winnipeg Collegiate student Rylee Gerrard, who came down with a sign saying “We’re learning science while MB Gov forgets theirs!”

“I don’t think schools are safe right now and I think the government needs to stop pushing us into school when they think it’s best for us when I think most of the school community can agree that it’s not safe for us to be here right now,” she said. 

Student Covid Walk Out Manitoba Legislative Building

Rylee Gerrard, a Grade 11 student at the University of Winnipeg collegiate, stands next to her sign the Manitoba Legislative Building. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The province’s chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said given how fast the Omicron variant spreads, there is no way to eliminate all risk from the virus in schools, adding that there is a risk to catching the virus in virtually all activities outside your home. 

“For people who are still going out, seeing their friends, participating in indoor recreation, getting out and about, then this isn’t posing that increased risk,” he said in an interview on Information Radio Monday morning.

“We have the safeguards in schools, so we all have to look at our own risk level. And you can’t look at that just on its own. We have to look at the benefit, and there’s so much benefit to being in school.”

Meanwhile, Education Minister Cliff Cullen said there are several initiatives the province has taken to make schools safer, such as implementing rapid testing programs for some teachers and students. But he echoed Roussin’s comments, saying that cases in schools tend to mirror rates seen in the community.

“We understand the concerns of our school communities and support student engagement. Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our school communities,” Cullen said in an email.

“The benefits of in-person learning are significant and our response seeks to find the balance between slowing the spread of the virus and ensuring as many children and youth can access in-person learning.”

School administrators had mixed reactions to the walkouts. 

At Kelvin High School, principal Tim Cox said in a memo to parents that the school supported students’ right to peacefully protest and put their education of the democratic process into action.

Elsewhere, school officials at Collège Louis-Riel said the walkout was not sanctioned by the school or the division, and that students who participated would be marked as absent.

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