Reopening schools in some communities next week is a better option than keeping classrooms closed because of the Omicron variant, the Northwest Territories’ chief public health officer says.
Schools in communities like Yellowknife have yet to reopen their classrooms in 2022, switching instead to remote learning as a wave of Omicron-driven Covid-19 infections sweeps the territory.
There remain hundreds of active Covid-19 cases in Yellowknife, though Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola said this week she believes the wave has peaked in some communities.
Schools in Aklavik, Behchokǫ̀, Délı̨nę, Fort Providence, Hay River, Whatì, Yellowknife, Ndilǫ, and Dettah will be safe to reopen from next week, Dr Kandola said.
Not all teachers and parents agree.
A group of parents in Yellowknife wrote to Premier Caroline Cochrane expressing concern that schools are “opening in the midst of an outbreak.” Those parents asked for air purification measures to be considered during cold winter months when windows can’t be opened to improve ventilation.
One Yellowknife teacher told Cabin Radio the decision to reopen classrooms epitomized a “lack of concern or regard for our mental health.”
The teacher, requesting anonymity as they are not authorized to speak on the matter, said: “It is not safe to reopen schools this way. Educators are overwhelmed and unsupported and this is ultimately going to affect students.
“We should be concerned about making schools healthy places, where students and staff alike are treated with respect and dignity.
“Demanding that things go on as usual without any acknowledgment of the collective trauma this pandemic is inflicting on us, without taking any action at all to make teachers feel that they are valued and that their health and well-being are important – it’s just not acceptable.”
In a letter to staff on Wednesday, the superintendent of Yellowknife’s YK1 school district acknowledged there would be “mixed emotions” about reopening classrooms on Monday.
“It is important to note that our schools have strong health and safety measures in place, including symptom checks, classroom bubbles, masking, and refraining from high-risk activities such as high-intensity sports,” superintendent Cindi Vaselenak wrote.
“These factors contribute to a safe return to in-person learning for our staff and students.”
The teacher said that letter was “heartless,” adding: “Students are allowed to wear cloth masks and classrooms are not being supplied with air filters or any kind of additional PPE or safety measures.
“It is impossible to socially distance in classrooms and students will still have to remove their masks around one another to eat and drink their food. Teachers have nowhere to go to safely socially distance while they eat or drink during indoor recess days, which are common.”
‘Greater level of risk tolerance’
Speaking on CBC North’s Trailbreaker on Thursday morning, Kandola said the Omicron wave was not the same as the earlier Delta-variant wave and required a different approach.
Acknowledging Omicron appears to cause less severe infection in most instances, Kandola told the CBC: “When we look at Omicron and the harms of keeping children out of in-person school, it is in the best interests of children to go back to school and continue their in-person learning. This is not just a decision being made in the Northwest Territories, we’ve seen this across Canada.
“To date, we haven’t had the scenario we saw with the NJ outbreak in May. When you look at the harms and benefits, it is most beneficial for communities to reopen schools.
“We’re in a stronger position for kids to go back to school. This is not the Delta wave. It’s safe, basically, to move forward at this point and we will continue to monitor.”
Writing to teachers, Vaselenak said that approach would mean “the least disruption to learning” and shifted the territory “toward balancing a greater level of risk tolerance with appropriate risk mitigation strategies.”
However, the teacher who expressed concern about the return to classrooms said mental health supports for staff felt like “an afterthought or a checked box.”
Not all schools in the territory will reopen their classrooms on Monday.
Schools in Fort Smith and Inuvik are expected to remain closed until the end of the month. Kandola said community spread is occurring in those communities and they have yet to reach the Omicron wave’s peak.