Austin elementary first to go remote in new school year

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Published Sep 30, 2021

Spikes in school absenteeism amid the fourth wave of COVID-19 in Manitoba have already prompted schools to shutter — less than one month after students returned after the summer break — as total cases in K-12 classrooms rise.

The province’s online dashboard indicated last week 56 students, staff and visitors at learning facilities had tested positive for the novel coronavirus since Sept. 7. That sum has more than doubled in a week’s time, to 133.

Austin Elementary School in the Pine Creek School Division is believed to be the first public school in the province to switch entirely to distance learning since the 2021-22 academic year began.

The K-8 building, which is located in Austin — a community of roughly 400, approximately 50 kilometres west of Portage la Prairie — indicated Tuesday it would operate remotely until Oct. 4, if not later. A positive test result and absenteeism sparked the closure, while the need for ongoing at-home instruction will be reassessed over the weekend, said area superintendent Keith Murray.

Christina Doerksen, who has children in grades 1, 3, 5 and 8, told the Free Press there has been a steady increase in cases in her community.

Austin is part of the Southern Health region, in which 40 per cent of the 366 new cases identified Sept. 24-27 in Manitoba were identified. The region, which boasts the lowest vaccine uptake in the province, has been home to anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests throughout the pandemic.

“(A closure) seemed a bit inevitable — but it’s still surprising nonetheless, because we like to be in school. Kids are ready to get back,” said Doerksen, a member of the elementary school’s parent advisory council.

While Murray said the school has been diligent in following mask and physical distancing protocols, he indicated many students did not show up to school in recent days and the division is concerned absenteeism will continue to rise.

“We have a large number of eligible students and adults in this area who are not vaccinated. This adds to our level of concern in keeping students and staff safe,” added the superintendent.

The province’s school map does not currently have any cases linked to Austin Elementary School. It only shows one positive case in Pine Creek, which was associated with MacGregor Collegiate in the two weeks prior to Sept. 26.

The map shows there are more than 10 cases at both Mitchell Elementary School and Kleefeld School in Hanover, as well as Christian Heritage School in Brandon.

Also this week, Charles Sinclair School in Fisher River Cree Nation and Waywayseecappo Community School announced temporary closures.

“There has been a high amount of absenteeism since (Sept. 7) with both students and staff. Most of these absences are due to sore throats, coughs, runny noses, headaches, and vomiting. As we are all aware the pandemic’s fourth wave is hitting Manitoba right now,” education staff in Waywayseecappo wrote in a memo to families.

“It is our hope to slow the spread of coughs and flu/cold symptoms that are going around.”

This item is reprinted with permission from Winnipeg Free Press. See article HERE.

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