It’s that time of year where schools are opening their doors to students once more – but as the NWT’s Covid-19 outbreak continues to grow, many families face confusion around what might entail.
As of Thursday evening, there are 262 active cases of Covid-19 among residents of the NWT. The territory’s first Covid-19-related death was reported on Tuesday.
Community spread has been confirmed in Norman Wells, Colville Lake, and Fort Good Hope, while Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola warned of its start in Yellowknife.
Within this new context, many schools are pivoting their plans for the fall.
The territorial government had previously released reopening guidelines mid-August, which included the suspension of singing and drama classes, large school gatherings, and daily screening and symptom checks.
All of these measures remain in place, and additional protocols have been implemented as schools update their re-opening plans.
Masks will now be mandatory at all times in all school settings including classrooms, according to Assistant Deputy-Minister of Education and Culture Shannon Barnett-Aikman. This is an update from the earlier guidelines, which stated that masks were only mandatory in school outside of classrooms.
Yellowknife’s YK1 school district, Catholic school board, Francophone school board, and Ndilǫ and Dettah education authorities released a joint letter to families Thursday afternoon, informing them of the changes.
Further north, schools in the Sahtu – the epicentre of the current outbreak – are still ironing out specifics.
The Mackenzie Mountain School in Norman Wells and the Chief T’Selehye School in Fort Good Hope were set to open September 1, while the ɂehtseo Ayha School in Délı̨nę and Colville Lake School were scheduled to start September 7.
Superintendent of the Sahtu Divisional Education Council Renee Closs told Cabin Radio by email that “a decision on whether to proceed with in-person or remote learning will be made later this week.”
On Friday afternoon, Closs confirmed that the Chief Albert Wright School in Tulita had passed a motion to continue with remote learning for the week of August 30 to September 3. Mackenzie Mountain School will also start with remote learning, re-evaluatating on September 3 for how to proceed the following week.
A decision has not yet been made by Colville Lake School or ɂehtseo Ayha School in Délı̨nę.
Cabin Radio spoke with Barnett-Aikman to get more clarity about how the department is approaching school amidst the current outbreak, how decisions around safety are made, and how families can stay informed.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Meaghan Brackenbury: With the outbreak across the NWT, what is the Government of the Northwest Territories’ (GNWT) rationale for proceeding with in-person learning?
Shannon Barnett-Aikman: The first thing I’d want to share with you is that at ECE (Department of Education, Culture, and Employment), we’re working closely with the CPHO (Chief Public Health Officer) to make decisions about how to safely open schools and to adjust those plans as needed based on the changing Covid-19 landscape. One of the things we’ve done recently is update the health and safety guidelines for schools to reflect the most recent recommendations that have come out of the CPHO, based on how the current outbreak has evolved. Then, when we think about what that means in the communities and in the regions, how education is delivered and what those schools-specific protocols are might be different.
There’s a number of factors that are considered when they develop school and region-specific guidelines based on the territorial guidelines, including the size of the school, the age of the students, and of course, what the current Covid-19 situation is in a given community or in a given region. It’s the district education authorities, in conjunction with the divisional education councils, who will monitor and re-evaluate the situation as it is ongoing in their communities. They’ll update the decisions around whether to continue with remote learning or to put it back in classroom, based on continued guidance from the CPHO and monitoring their own reality.
For the schools that are not affected by containment orders across the NWT, we’ll be putting in place a number of safety measures based on our guidelines, such as masking guidelines, as well as enhanced screening protocols, ensuring that we have strict adherence to daily screening for symptoms for students and staff, and limiting visitors within the schools – all of the things that we know are being practiced and were based on CPHO advice to make sure that we can continue to offer in-person learning in the safest way possible.
You mentioned that masks are now mandatory on all school premises, including classrooms?
Mandatory masking in the classrooms and making sure that we have our kids and adults masked up is important, especially in light of public health orders around the indoor masking in public spaces – although classrooms are not necessarily considered public spaces. All the current public health information around the Delta variant and around our current Covid-19 situation has informed us to update our health and safety guidelines to have all students and staff masking in our schools.
We hear regularly from our Chief Public Health Office that masking is one of the best things they can do to limit the spread of Covid and prevent transmission, so it just makes the best sense. Our priority is making sure that we’re opening our schools with the highest level of safety that we can provide for everyone in the building, including the children and the adults.
With that in mind, we have decided to require masks for everyone, at least coming into the beginning of the school year.
What screening protocols are in place at schools? Is it encouraging parents to screen their own children before they go to school each day? Is it something that teachers and staff will carry out?
It’s a bit of a combined approach, honestly. We’re relying on everyone within the school community to help with this, and to make sure that we’re all doing what we can to keep our schools safe. Daily monitoring for symptoms of Covid-19 is going to be vital.
Based on everything coming out of the CPHO’s office, we’re asking that parents and guardians monitor their children daily for symptoms of Covid-19 before sending them into school. There is a daily symptom screening tool for students, as well as staff and early childcare workers. That link is available online, and that’s what we’ve provided to help parents with monitoring.
Likewise, if our staff are sick or unwell, we are hoping people will stay home. The intent is really for us to protect school environments, and to protect one another. This is the single most important thing we can do to protect our children and classmates in our school environment and help keep our students at school for the duration of the school year. This is really something we’re asking of parents and guardians, but it’s also something we’re asking of staff.
Are there contingency plans being developed in case schools do have outbreaks during the year?
Well, we’ve learned a lot over the past 18 months to two years. Schools always plan with that possibility in mind. We saw this last year when the outbreak happened in Yellowknife; the schools in Yellowknife, Dettah, Ndilǫ, and Behchokǫ̀ had to pivot to remote learning, and they were able to do that quickly. Parents, guardians, and students in our communities at large should be prepared for student learning to change quickly if the evolving circumstances around Covid-19 warrant that.
For instance, if multiple teachers were to become ill, or if there was a possible or confirmed Covid-19 outbreak in a school, those would be things that would warrant us pivoting in that direction.
Should there be a case of Covid-19 in the school, the parents should be prepared for their children to be sent home quickly and for contact-tracing to be done before schools could reopen. Of course, the educational system will work closely with the health system in those instances. Should a child develop symptoms while at school, they will be isolated safely, and parents will be contacted to come and pick them up.
Last question: how can people best stay informed? I know a lot of people are looking for answers.
I think if nothing else, we’ve all learned this is a very dynamic situation, and that the public health orders can change rapidly. So, recognizing that, we at ECE will provide regular updates to the public as plans move forward for the coming school year. We’ll do that through our GNWT website.
Updates are also being posted and communicated through social media, radio and newspaper ads, and posters. All the ways we can get information out to our families and community members, we will continue to provide updates.