Religious exercises and religious instruction may look different in the Hanover School Division this year… if they even happen at all.

Under Hanover School Board policy, for a school to offer religious programming, a petition of 60 parent signatures must be handed in to the head office before April 30th the previous school year. Recognizing the logistical complications that arose from the COVID-19 pandemic the board revised that deadline, twice, eventually landing on July 31st. By the stated date, every school in the division except for Niverville High School had the required signatures authorizing them to hold either religious exercises or instruction.

The matter then surfaced again at the board’s most recent meeting. As Chair Rick Peters indicates, a new clause has been added to their typical policy, noting organized religious gatherings in schools can only proceed when health authorities determine it to be safe. He says the Manitoba School Boards Association recommended the verbiage in all provincial divisions.

“We had to make provisions for the circumstances that we are in,” states Peters. “Obviously we are not going to have religious instructions or exercises if we cannot get together in groups and we have to keep the cohorts together.”

To mitigate the potential transmissibility of the virus, the Hanover School Division this year has adopted a protocol that separates students into cohorts of no more than 75 people. To then assemble multiple cohorts in a room for Christian teaching would negate that precaution.

Peters though remains confident some form of religious instruction will yet take place.

“Our intent is still to provide that, as we have the petition,” he says, “but what that will look like is unknown. We’ll get school going and then we’ll figure that out.”

Come September, Peters says establishing the basic mechanics of a safe school day will be tricky enough without trying to work in add-ons like religious instruction. In many Hanover schools, religious programming ordinarily begins in October anyway. Peters hopes that one month period will be ample time to get into a rhythm. From there, the future of religious instruction and religious exercises will be more certainly decided.

In many ways, this issue is symbolic of the larger moving pieces at play. When it comes to implementing health and safety measures in Hanover schools, the board is essentially helpless.

“I think that is one of the things that is unique in this,” Peters comments. “Boards are not making the decisions. For the most part, we are being directed by the province and that takes this decision-making process out of our hands and puts it into someone else’s hands.”

Peters does not indicate that he is frustrated by this lack of control. With the departments of education and health looking after safety regulations, he says his board can more easily focus on ways of maximizing learning potential during these trying times.

“Where normally we would probably look to setting a vision: 'Where does our school division want to go?’ Right now, it is just about getting kids back into schools and having them learning.”