Original Published 22:51 Apr 07, 2022

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A rowdy protest against COVID-19 restrictions at a Steinbach high school prompted more than 20 employees who felt intimidated to report workplace safety concerns.

On the morning of Feb. 10, hundreds of students at Steinbach Regional Secondary School left the building to join community members protesting mask and vaccine mandates on foot and in vehicles near the school.

The school first went into lockdown, then administration later announced a hold-and-secure for the remainder of the day. Under a hold-and-secure, the high school’s doors are locked to ensure no one can enter the building because a serious situation is taking place in the community.

“It was definitely a trying time for staff who just wanted to do their jobs,” said Kevin Martens, president of the Hanover Teachers’ Association. “Having that protest going on outside of the school, and then actually possibly forcing its way inside was quite stressful.”

According to the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, approximately two dozen workplace incident reports have been filed by school staff following the events. That makes up about 11 per cent of the school’s staff.

Such reports must be followed up with an internal investigation and may result in recommendations to prevent future incidents.

“We must record any instances of physical or verbal abuse. I know that a number of you had physical or verbal altercations with students or adults,” wrote principal Sherry Bestvater, in an email to all school employees on Feb. 14.

RCMP confirmed demonstrators attempted to gain unauthorized entry into the grades 9-12 school, including one student who was asked to leave the premises on five separate occasions after repeatedly attempting to enter the building.

Police said an officer in plainclothes physically intervened to stop the teenage boy and warned him he could be arrested.

Internal division correspondence recently obtained by the Free Press through freedom of information requests indicates some protesters did, in fact, manage to enter the school.

The Hanover School Division has declined to provide details about actions taken to address student behaviours, citing privacy reasons. However, a senior administrator confirmed fewer than 10 students were disciplined.

Upwards of 1,700 students attend the rural high school. There is also a daycare on site.

The Feb. 10 protest took place amid a so-called freedom convoy in downtown Winnipeg that saw organizers set up big rigs outside the Manitoba legislature for nearly three weeks to promote the anti-restriction movement.

In a letter sent to families on Feb. 14, principals of the Steinbach high school thanked the individuals who remained respectful and peaceful during the local protest.

“Whether you chose to remain in class or join the protest outside, we value your choice and decision. Unfortunately, not all participants were respectful nor peaceful. The actions of some threatened our staff and students and prevented us from being able to hold classes. We are deeply saddened to witness some and learn of other significant and harmful interactions,” wrote Bestvater and Cam Kelbert.

The principals noted the divisional care team would be in place for anyone requiring additional support.

Hanover’s board of trustees issued a statement later that week to applaud staff for their professionalism and urged protesters to remain off school property in the future.

“We’re thankful that we haven’t seen a repeat of this incident… but it’s a reminder that we always have to be mindful of working hard to keep our schools safe,” said MTS president James Bedford, who represents upwards of 16,000 public school teachers.

The union leader said learning can only happen when classrooms are safe environments and schools should not be sites for aggressive, violent or racist protests. He condemned the racist remarks that were made towards school community members on Feb. 10.

One principal indicated custodians had expressed concern about racial slurs that were vocalized during the protests in an email penned to Hanover’s superintendent.

Superintendent Shelley Amos declined interview requests, saying the division communicated immediately with families and has no further comment regarding the public protest.

Since March 15, virtually all public health restrictions in schools and across society have loosened.

“With the mask mandate being lifted, it’s chaos,” said Garrett Hurst, a Grade 11 student who indicated he is a member of the minority continuing to wear face coverings at the high school.

The 16-year-old estimates 25 per cent of the student population and 50 per cent of employees are still masking.

Garrett said a couple of his teachers briefly addressed the protest once in-person instruction resumed after a snow day and single remote learning day in mid-February.

“Essentially, everyone just tried to forget that it happened,” he said, adding he found it interesting that the province announced ambitious plans to roll back restrictions on the day after the events occurred outside his high school.

In emails following the demonstration, school employees were reminded to be “careful” about their messaging and to “keep opinions and debates off the class agenda.”

COVID-19 precautions have been a subject of much debate in and around southern Manitoba throughout the pandemic due to widespread anti-government sentiment in the region.

This item reprinted with permission from the Winnipeg Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba