Manitoba faces backlash over virtual school closure

School administration informed parents the virtual school would be supporting transitions to brick-and-mortar buildings next year.

Manitoba Education was bombarded with emails decrying the province’s February decision to close its virtual elementary school without consultation — and calls for a different outcome have yet to quiet.

“With all of the lost learning during COVID, I am shocked this would happen,” one user wrote in a recent message to Education Minister Wayne Ewasko.

“I find it curious that you are running a campaign on preventing student absenteeism when you had a program that helped this issue. In my eyes — this really shows you don’t care about kids,” another email states.

The Manitoba Remote Learning Support Centre, which runs a full-time online learning option for Grades 1-8 students, was launched in 2021 to support children from households with medical condition-related concerns about COVID-19.

Enrolment has since expanded to include families interested in the flexible model, with both real-time videoconference lessons and independent study, for other reasons.

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On Feb. 7, school administration informed parents the virtual school would be supporting transitions to brick-and-mortar buildings next year.

“School divisions will resume the leadership and delivery of remote learning plans for students and families who require accommodations, as was the established practice prior to the pandemic,” Ewasko said in a statement Tuesday.

A freedom of information request for memos Ewasko sent and received about the subject within the first two months of 2023 revealed Manitobans’ support for e-learning options and frustrations families are being abandoned.

“I am worried we are turning our backs on these kids, forcing them to be homeschooled or forced back to a place that was not safe,” states one of more than 30 emails on the subject sent to the minister’s office Feb. 13-22.

Another noted the Public Schools Act allows the minister to approve a closure if a board of trustees demonstrates it is the result of a consolidation of schools; there is support among parents and residents; and it is no longer feasible to operate due to declining enrolment.

The province has repeatedly indicated the virtual school was built to be temporary and demand has diminished since the height of the pandemic.

However, critics claim the latter can be attributed to its discontinuation of kindergarten and French instruction and capping class sizes.

There are about 200 current students. During the winter term, approximately 800 learners participated in its free extracurriculars, including literacy, numeracy and social-emotional programs, that were made available to all children in Manitoba.

During a conference last month, members of the Manitoba School Boards Association approved a resolution to lobby the province to continue operating the virtual hub.

“Some of these students may not return to school or families are going to (face) hardship,” said Karen Johnston, a trustee in Selkirk who has a child enrolled in the online school.

“The remote learning centre removes barriers and it provides accessibility for education for students across Manitoba who may have additional physical, medical, emotional needs.”

The absence of a public e-learning option for elementary school students in 2023-24 will make Manitoba an outlier in Western Canada.

Saskatchewan has established a central online education program for next year. Alberta and British Columbia have registries promoting the public and private schools that offer remote instruction in their respective jurisdictions.

Manitoba’s 2022-23 back-to-school guide states in-classroom learning is optimal for academic achievement and social and mental well-being for most students.

The document acknowledges there is a role for remote learning in the future, which is among the reasons many were caught off-guard when the province announced the school was being shuttered.

“As parents, we will do our best to protect the interest of our children and we are looking at many avenues to keep the school open,” said Shoshana Kraut, a mother involved with the online school’s parent advisory council.

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Kraut said this option has proven successful for remote workers, travelling families, children who have experienced bullying, children who have lengthy commutes, and families with transportation challenges.

This story was originally published in The Free PressIt is republished under a Creative Commons license as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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