The Northwest Territories Chief Public Health Officer says schools in Yellowknife, Dettah, Ndilǫ and Behchokǫ̀ can reopen on May 17, two weeks after they closed as cases of Covid-19 rose in the city.
Dr Kami Kandola made the announcement at a news conference on Wednesday morning, noting that school boards may choose not to open on that date. Extracurricular and recreational activities can also return at that time.
“In-person learning means health and wellbeing of our children. It’s where they need to be,” Kandola said, adding that the health and safety of school staff and students is the territory’s “number one priority.”
Education minister RJ Simpson said that so far, Yellowknife’s Catholic school board has indicated it plans to reopen schools on Monday. He said he had not yet spoken to other school boards on the matter.
A letter to parents and guardians from YK1 Superintendent Ed Lippert indicates that school board also intends to return to in-person learning on Monday.
Kandola said the decision to re-open schools comes as the number of new daily infections has dropped and isolation periods are nearing an end for many families. She noted that new infections are mainly the result of household transmission; there is no evidence of transmission to school staff within classrooms; and all positive cases are in students, their close contacts, or household members.
“Our response to the outbreak is working and I believe we have turned a corner,” Kandola said, adding that if it weren’t for the “cooperation and selflessness” of those isolating “the outcome of this outbreak could have been much different.”
Kandola added that by Sunday, the territory anticipates 60 percent of the 12 to 17 year old population in Yellowknife, Dettah, Ndilǫ and Behchokǫ̀ will have received their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.
When schools do reopen, there will be additional safety measures in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19. School assemblies, singing, and gym and fitness classes are now prohibited indoors but can take place outdoors. Masks will be mandatory indoors for students and staff, including in classrooms. There will be “enhanced seating arrangements” and ventilation in classrooms, and assigned seating and improved ventilation on school buses.
Staff and students that have any symptoms of Covid-19 must stay at home, get assessed, and provide an assessment card to their school.
Confusion about testing
Dr AnneMarie Pegg, the territory’s medical director, noted there has been confusion about testing and isolation dates – in part because the advice is not the same for people with different levels of exposure.
According to a Q&A published by the territorial government, only students and staff in isolation who were deemed contacts as part of the NJ Macpherson School outbreak will need to be tested for Covid-19. A negative result will allow them to return to school and let their household members leave isolation.
Other members of the household do not need a test unless that household has included someone who earlier tested positive for Covid-19 as part of the cluster. (There was some confusion on this point during Wednesday’s news conference. Public health has now reiterated that only students need a test, not parents or other contacts of contacts in the household, unless a positive case was involved.)
Testing appointments are available between May 13 and 15 at the dedicated pop-up testing site at NJ Macpherson School for students and staff without symptoms of Covid-19.
All NJ Macpherson School students and staff from Junior Kindergarten to Grade Five, and anyone else considered a contact from public exposure notifications, must be tested between day 10 and 14 of their isolation period.
Children who have tested negative should bring their Covid-19 assessment card to school.
Children who have tested positive for Covid-19 and their household members must continue to isolate until notified by public health, the NWT government said. Each household where a case of Covid-19 has been confirmed will receive specific instructions from public health that will outline when their isolation is completete.
The territorial government said it may take three to five days to receive a negative test result, while positive test results are reported immediately.
The Department of Health and Social Services has noted that result times for Covid-19 tests are longer than usual and rapid tests will not be used due to the extremely high number of tests. Extra staff will help with testing and results, and some tests may be sent to Alberta if capacity in the NWT is exceeded.
Anyone who has symptoms of Covid-19 will need to be assessed and follow recommendations from public health.
As of Tuesday night, there were 61 confirmed cases of Covid-19 associated with the latest Yellowknife outbreak. Of those cases, 53 involved children. Six additional cases have been deemed probable but not yet confirmed by laboratory analysis.
All of the cases stem from the NJ Macpherson outbreak, with the first cases reported in early May. Around 1,000 people have been identified as contacts and have been isolating.
Ollie Williams contributed reporting.