The leader of the NWT Teachers’ Association says closing schools in Yellowknife, Dettah, and Ndilǫ was “the right call to make at this time” as the region faces a growing Covid-19 outbreak.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday afternoon, Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola said the pandemic was “forcing us to make difficult decisions” as she defended the decision to order the closure of Yellowknife-area schools until at least the end of September 24.
“We are trying to navigate the path of least harm until we are able to bring community transmission back under control,” Dr Kandola said. Yellowknife had 121 active Covid-19 cases as of Tuesday evening, more than 70 of them in vulnerable people with no stable housing.
Kandola told reporters schools had initially been kept open as, with a high vaccination rate in Yellowknife, it was thought cases could be contained.
However, with community spread among a group of people characterized as underimmunized – alongside infection of their support workers and breaches of isolation – Kandola said keeping schools open “would have led to many introductions and, at some point, outbreaks.”
“The problem with the pandemic is we need to pivot when we get the information,” she said.
“A week ago, our approach was to keep schools open because schools have been doing an amazing job and they’ve been controlling the introduction.”
Matthew Miller, president of the NWT Teachers’ Association, backed the chief public health officer’s decision.
“This last week, tensions in our schools have been high,” Miller told Cabin Radio on Tuesday.
“You can appreciate teachers being stressed when they’re faced with hundreds of non-vaccinated students for those that were in the JK-6 or the under-12 groups. So there was definitely a lot of stress there.
“In the high school, I’m told some of our teachers faced four exposure notices since school opened. In two weeks. And so the question was: is this a safe environment?”
In-person teaching poses its own problems. Miller said a lack of substitute teachers has created another challenge.
“If there are cases and teachers are expected to self-isolate, or if their own children are sick … this year – more than any – there’s a considerable lack of substitute teachers,” he said.
“If there was an outbreak, trying to find people to replace those teachers will be challenging.”
Miller hopes closures won’t prove an ongoing pattern in the school year ahead.
“I certainly hope that we’re not going back and forth,” he said. “It’s difficult for staff, it’s difficult for students, and we all can recognize it’s definitely difficult on communities and those who are, at this point, very challenged in finding childcare.
“If there’s still an increase in cases, potentially this remote learning is extended. And if cases are down, hopefully we are back in school, following proper protocols in our buildings and ensuring everyone’s safe.”
Below, read a full transcript of the interview.
This interview was conducted on September 14, 2021. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
McKenna Hadley-Burke: Do you have a sense of how this is playing out in smaller communities that have been under containment orders?
Matthew Miller: We’ve definitely been in contact with the schools and principals and realized we did have a large turnover. Some of our teachers were not even able to get into the communities before they transitioned to these remote learning packages. So it’s definitely created some additional anxiety. But in any year teachers are trying to form new relations with students, and this was just another year for that but a lot more challenging, I think.
What are you hearing from teachers right now, how is the shift back to remote learning impacting them?
Prior to going back in the last few days, I guess this last week, tensions in our schools have been high. You can appreciate teachers being stressed when they’re faced with hundreds of non-vaccinated students for those that were in the JK-6 or the under-12 groups. So there was definitely a lot of stress there.
In the high school, I’m told some of our teachers faced four exposure notices since school opened. In two weeks. And so the question was: is this a safe environment? Even in those 12-and-up people who were able to be vaccinated.
So, it was causing a lot of stress. Everybody, I believe, wants to be back to a normal face-to-face school year. But we do have to err on the side of caution. I believe this was the right call right now. I’m a father with two children. Of course I want to see them in school with their friends, with their teachers. But I think this was the right call to make at this time.
Do you expect this kind of stop-start mode, of in-person to online delivery, to be the likely pattern in the school year ahead?
We are definitely looking at that and considering what school will look like. Nobody wants us to go back in two weeks, find out there are some additional cases, and do further shutdowns. The information I have is that the system was getting overloaded, especially the healthcare. None of the transmissions that we know of took place in schools.
So although it was stressful for our teachers, trying to find that correct balance of feeling unsafe and being unsafe, or for staff and students to be there, I certainly hope that we’re not going back and forth. It’s difficult for staff, it’s difficult for students, and we all can recognize that it’s definitely difficult on communities and those who are, at this point, very challenged in finding childcare.
What is your primary concern right now, and how are you going about addressing it?
Our primary concern is for the safety of our staff, students, and our communities. We’re in talks with ECE [the NWT’s Department of Education, Culture, and Employment], we’ve contacted the chief public health officer, the minister of health, the minister of ECE. We try to keep that dialogue open so that we’re all on the same page when these decisions are being made: making sure that anything that is released, we all know what that release is going to be, we share those values, and to make sure that safety is of course the priority right now.
The current closure is expected to last until September 24 , where do we go from there?
My understanding is we will switch back into school learning. Of course, no one has a crystal ball. I’m assuming that the CPHO, Public Health, ECE, superintendents will all be a part of what this looks like. If there’s still an increase in cases, potentially this remote learning is extended, and if cases are down, hopefully we are back in school, following proper protocols in our buildings and ensuring everyone’s safe.
Another challenge is if there are cases and teachers are expected to self-isolate, or if their own children are sick. One of the issues right now that we’re hearing from administrators is the lack of substitutes. This year, more than any, there’s a considerable lack of substitute teachers and if there was an outbreak, trying to find people to replace those teachers will be challenging, I think. So if anyone’s interested in substituting I highly encourage them to contact their administrator or one of the board offices. This is not just a Yellowknife issue, this seems to be across the NWT.