Are schools going to reopen for the last few weeks of the school year now that the NWT’s chief public health officer has given them permission?
Education leaders and district education authorities (DEAs) across the territory are rushing to answer that question – one on the lips of every parent – hopefully by the end of this week.
Simon Cloutier, chair of the NWT’s francophone school board, said “no one in the education world” was expecting Dr Kami Kandola, the NWT’s chief public health officer, to announce that schools could reopen in the first phase of the territory’s recovery plan – which potentially kicks in as soon as Friday.
The plan states elementary, middle, and high schools could reopen in phase one if no community spread of Covid-19 is found in the territory before May 15.
“We understand that many people were likely surprised by this development,” said a letter issued jointly by Yellowknife’s school districts on Wednesday evening, adding the school boards “continue to work extremely closely with one another and will keep you apprised of any decisions made.”
Earlier in the pandemic, on March 25, education minister RJ Simpson recommended all NWT schools close for the remainder of the school year. The territory’s schools have been closed since that week, though the decision to close or open is ultimately up to individual school boards.
If the first phase of the plan moves ahead on Friday, that doesn’t mean schools would open that day.
They would first have to complete two Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission (WSCC) risk assessments and a WSCC webinar, enhance school cleaning, and define exclusion criteria, such as when students shouldn’t be sent to school and how to protect high-risk staff.
Many other mitigation measures have to be in place for schools to reopen – whether it be this spring or the fall.
Staff and students will have to practise physical distancing and require masks if they can’t be distanced, such as when on a school bus. People will have to enter using one door and exit out another, and ventilation will need to be improved in schools.
There will be no assemblies, indoor sports, singing, drama, or music classes, nor extracurricular or volunteer activities for the foreseeable future – but outdoor classes are encouraged.
Students and staff who are high-risk or sick will have to stay home. Any staff that can work from home will be expected to keep doing so.
The chief public health officer is also requiring staggered recesses and no sharing of items, including restrictions around the provision of food, to keep students as separated as possible.
“In the eventuality that we open the school, the school needs to be ready to accept students, so that will take some time,” said Cloutier.
“That is part of the discussion: what can we do to get ready and can we do that in a very short period of time, to make sure we can give education in our schools before the end of the school year? That’s part of the question we are addressing right now.”
Cloutier said the Commission scolaire francophone hopes to have more information for families by the end of this week.
School council superintendents were meeting with the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment on Wednesday to discuss how they can address the chief public health officer’s requirements. Meanwhile, education council chairs will meet with the education minister on Wednesday night.
Afterward, superintendents and chairs will go back to their regions and pass any information to district education authorities, which have the authority to open schools in their respective communities – or keep them closed.
Despite challenges, teachers are excited
Fraser Oliver, president of the NWT Teachers’ Association, was among many using the word “shocked” to describe his reaction when he learned schools could, if they chose, prepare to reopen.
There has been excitement from teachers, he said, and a feeling that this is the beginning of getting back to classrooms.
But teachers also feel stressed from the rapid changes in the last six weeks, Oliver said: schools have closed, teachers have had to learn to teach from home, and now they may have to ready their classrooms for students to learn during a pandemic.
If schools decide to reopen in late May or June, Oliver said there are additional hurdles to overcome.
For example, JH Sissons School in Yellowknife has already been packed up in preparation for demolition this summer.
And 10 to 15 percent of the territory’s teachers – approximately 80 to 150 people – never made it back to the territory from their spring breaks, Oliver said, as the federal government began encouraging everyone to shelter in place.
If those teachers come back to the NWT for the last few weeks of the school year, they’ll first have to self-isolate in Fort Smith, Hay River, Inuvik, or Yellowknife before they can go back to work.
A playground at NJ Macpherson School carries a warning sign from the YK1 school district in April 2020. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
This is further complicated by the fact that many teachers living outside the NWT right now are from the Sahtu, and must all isolate at a hotel in a regional centre – and teach from there for two weeks – before they can make it back in person.
“I’m not sure we can get all those [recovery plan requirements] in place and approved by next week,” Oliver said. “It seems like a lot of work for a short gain of two to three weeks – maybe it’s best to take that energy and put it toward September.”
Oliver couldn’t speak for DEAs, which haven’t yet made decisions about when schools will open, but said he’s getting the sense from education leaders that they want to make a decision as soon as possible so families know what’s going on.
The Beaufort Delta Divisional Education Council and Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency said they would need to meet with their councils before making official statements. No other education councils responded to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Kandola says “no better time than now”
Meanwhile, in the territory’s virtual legislature, regular MLAs asked questions by video about schools being allowed to reopen in the first phase of the plan.
Jackie Jacobson, who represents the Nunakput district – covering Sachs Harbour, Ulukhaktok, Paulatuk, and Tuktoyaktuk – said three of those communities’ four mayors did not want their schools to reopen until September.
“In our communities, it’s different,” he said. “One person gets sick, it could affect 10 or 20, right?”
Health minister Diane Thom and Premier Caroline Cochrane assured Jacobson that schools don’t have to open, and that how and when they do is up to each community’s DEA.
“The loosening of the restrictions for schools has benefits to it and there are drawbacks as well,” said Premier Cochrane.
“If we have a mass amount of school kids coming back all at once in September, there might be a lot more chaos than if we gradually bring them in. Each school district will have the opportunity to do what they think is best.”
Dr Kandola explained schools are included in the first phase of the plan because Canadian statistics show fewer than five percent of reported Covid-19 infections have occurred in people under 19 years of age.
“If you look at over 3,000 hospitalizations, only 32 occurred in those aged under 19. There have been no deaths,” she told MLAs.
“When you look at the federal guidance for kids less than or equal to 10, they don’t feel they are a strong driver of the outbreak.
“In the past, when you look at pandemics like H1N1 and influenza, kids played a role in influenza spread. But the data we’re seeing right now shows that kids have minimal symptoms, are not impacted as severely, and are not the index cases of clusters.”
Knowing there is no community spread in the NWT, the border is closed, and a vaccine might not be ready for 18 months or longer, Kandola said “there is no better time than now” to reintroduce kids to school.
“There are no cases, the weather is warm, we have tight controls at our borders,” she told Cabin Radio on Tuesday evening.
“Parents who are anxious and fearful, how long do you want to live in anxiety and fear? Two years, three years? At what point do you accept risk, mitigate the risk, and decide your kids deserve an education and it is safe to do so?
“That’s a decision I have to make and I’m saying it’s safe to do so. I understand parents are concerned but that fear and anxiety is not going to change. If it’s contingent on the pandemic ending, you’d have to live with that concern for at least 18 months to two years.”