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Manitoba NDP opposition leader Wab Kinew speaks at an emergency COVID-19 physically distanced session at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg on April 15, 2020.

JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

Manitoba’s Opposition New Democrats called on the provincial government Tuesday to hire 400 new teachers and build or rent new classrooms in order to reopen schools in September.

Because physical distancing is required to keep COVID-19 from spreading, the government should set firm limits on classroom sizes and reorganize schools in time for the first day of school, NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

“We’re calling on the provincial government to implement a class-size cap of 15 students per classroom,” Kinew said.

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“And in order to accomplish this, the province would need to hire some 400 teachers.”

The NDP plan also demands more buses and bus drivers, more personal protective equipment and increased mental health supports, at a total cost of roughly $260 million.

The changes are possible even though there are only five weeks until the start of the school year, Kinew said. He noted that prospective teachers are ready and able.

“We … know that there’s a lot of young educators in Manitoba who’ve had difficulty getting a job. They’re in the substitute pool right now. There’s other young educators who are coming out of the universities.”

Schools across the province were shut down in March due to the pandemic and students continued their studies online and at home. Kinew said he thinks kids in all grades – from kindergarten to Grade 12 – should be able to return to the classroom in September.

The Progressive Conservative government has promised to release its back-to-school plan later this week and offered no comment Tuesday on the NDP demands.

“We have committed to provide more detail by Aug. 1 on the return to schools and will make an announcement soon,” reads a one-line statement from Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen’s office.

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Provincial health officials reported one new COVID-19 death – a man in his 70s – and five new cases Tuesday, bringing the total so far to eight deaths and 405 confirmed and probable cases.

The province has seen a spike in recent weeks, primarily among inter-provincial travellers and in some Hutterite colonies. At one point earlier this month, Manitoba was down to one known active cases. That number had risen to 78.

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