In the first week of school as thousands of unvaccinated students prepared to start classes, Manitoba announced a new partnership aimed at improving the mental health and wellbeing of school employees.
Mental Health Minister Audrey Gordon and Education Minister Cliff Cullen announced Sept. 8 the province has earmarked more than $1 million for mental health initiatives in the K-12 sector.
Of that sum, $380,000 will be spent on a collaborative project with the Canadian Mental Health Association that will provide educators and support staff with coaching to find appropriate resources for their own wellbeing, as well as training opportunities to help struggling students.
"This is one thing that’s been a long time coming," said Christian Michalik, superintendent of the Louis Riel School Division, who joined the ministers and executive director of the local mental health association at an afternoon news conference outside his board office in St. Vital.
"When you’re thinking of wellness initiatives in systems like public schools and public health, it’s of course about the community you serve — but if your own community doing the serving isn’t being looked after, it’s going to be a challenge."
Surveys undertaken by both researchers at the University of Winnipeg and Manitoba Teachers’ Society in 2020-21 found school staff were feeling the pressures of pandemic health concerns and workloads — so much so, it made some question their careers.
Divisions across Winnipeg also recorded varying upticks in everything from sick days to retirements as educators grappled with the realities of teaching in-person with masks, online, or both at the same time. In Louis Riel, annual teacher retirements spiked, between 2018-19 and 2020-21, from 27 to 45.
"Last year was an enormously difficult year ... You can’t underestimate the need for good mental health. It is as essential as good physical health is," said James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.
The new announcement is a recognition of the important, frank conversations about wellbeing that happened in classrooms and staff rooms last year, as well as a commitment of support to continuing them in 2021-22, said Bedford.
In addition to the new school staff initiative, the province is funding projects that will translate mental health resources into French, provide professional development related to addressing the trauma caused by the pandemic, and see knowledge keepers visit schools.
"We’ve seen higher rates of worry and anxiety and we’ve seen young people reaching out for supports in rates that we’ve never seen before," said Marion Cooper, executive director of the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Cooper said her hope is the new investments equip youth to be resilient and emotionally literate during unprecedented times.
Top of mind for students, school staff and families this fall are concerns about testing for unvaccinated staff, mask breaks implementation, and physical distancing regulations.
Cullen could not provide exact details about guidance regarding mask breaks nor rapid testing.
Asked whether he anticipates remote learning this year, Cullen said Manitobans must continue to be flexible while noting the province will work closely with divisions and public health officials to monitor the situation. He added: "We believe the measures and plans in place will allow us to keep schools open, while making this year as close to normal as possible."