Few kids in class in Deer Lake, as officials urge calm amid COVID-19 anxiety

·4 min read
Colleen Connors/CBC
Colleen Connors/CBC

Few students have been in class in Deer Lake this week, as anxiety levels remain high over COVID-19 despite public health officials and the premier urging parents to stay calm.

Elwood Elementary closed Monday and Tuesday after a student tested positive for COVID-19, the first case in Newfoundland and Labrador's school system. But barely anyone showed up to the two other schools in the town that remained open on those days.

Only 10 of about 280 students at Xavier Junior High showed up for class on Tuesday, and only 10 out of 230 attended Elwood Regional High School the same day.

Xavier Junior High student Kara Pinksen, 11 was among those who stayed home the first two days of the week. Pinksen said there were only four other students in her class on Wednesday, instead of the usual 24.

"It was really stressful because I didn't know what to think of it," Pinksen told CBC News on Wednesday, after finishing school for the day.

"I think everything is going well, and we're still having classes as normal."

She said she has to be extra cautious now that COVID-19 is close to home, adding she knows two people in her community — a friend and the mother of the friend — who tested positive and are currently isolating.

Colleen Connors/CBC
Colleen Connors/CBC

"I feel like some people are a bit more cautious and are super careful. Some people are quarantined again and self-isolating to make sure that they didn't catch it. Then there's some other people that don't think much of it and they have to make sure they still wear their mask and everything," she said.

"I have a feeling that it's all going to be fine, but I know that we still have to be careful and everything."

On Wednesday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said everybody in the affected cohort from Elwood Elementary has been tested and there have been no other positive cases found in that group.

The school reopened Wednesday, with the one class affected remaining at home with virtual learning in place.

'Take a deep breath'

In the face of increased absenteeism, Premier Andrew Furey —who is also the MHA for district that includes Deer Lake — asked parents to remain calm, saying COVID-19 protocols in place for schools have proven to have worked over the last few days.

"I think that people should be reassured that isolating cohorts within schools work, and it will allow a continued, orderly, calm approach to education and life with COVID-19," Furey said during Wednesday's COVID-19 briefing.

Furey said he, too, would feel the same anxiety as the parents who are trying to navigate COVID-19 clusters in their communities while preparing their kids for school. Furey, who has three school-aged children, wants parents to take comfort in public health's protocols keeping people safe and being the "envy" of the rest of the country.

"They have the results to prove it," said Furey.

"Just be calm and public health officials will be in contact with you if they need to. If you don't hear from them then your contacts didn't need to be traced. But, if you're fearful, and you feel like your child is developing symptoms, always reach out to 811 to seek advice."

Government of Newfoundland and Labrador
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador

Elsewhere in the province parents are also choosing to keep their kids home from school.

At Fatima Academy in St. Bride's, a spokesperson from the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District confirmed there was "low" attendance on Wednesday but didn't provide specifics "due to the size of the school."

Furey said he couldn't speak to specific families, but again reiterated COVID-19 protocols in schools have been working.

"I think people not sending their children to school, they should pause and take a deep breath, and I understand their anxieties, but they should have every confidence in Dr. Fitzgerald and her public health team that have proven, that have earned their stripes, that they implemented these protocols with the safety of children as the number on priority," he said.

Schools prepared for virtual learning

NLESD CEO Tony Stack echoed the premier's comments.

Stack told CBC News the NLESD has had great communication with public health and continues to follow the advice provided to them.

Stack said Dr. Fitzgerald told the NLESD there would be "bumps in the road along the way" but the school district is confident with where things stand that it isn't necessary to alter school operations.

Schools are ready to move to online learning if necessary, Stack said, and the affected class at Elwood Elementary has already shifted to virtual learning.

"We get stronger and stronger every day in preparation. Our schools are prepared to pivot. We've practiced this, we've got professional learning behind it," he said.

Stack said Chromebooks are beginning roll out to students. The laptops were ordered ahead of the start of the new school year in case classes shift online for students in Grade 7 to Grade 12.

He said the school district is hopeful the laptops will be distributed before the Christmas break.

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