Teachers will be able to request COVID-19 testing — even if they're showing no symptoms, said Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province's chief medical officer of health.
The asymptomatic testing also covers educational assistants and other support staff but does not include students "at this time," Russell said Tuesday during a briefing on the province's back-to-school plan.
Russell said students, like the rest of the public, need only show one symptom to be tested.
She said officials are working on the details to ensure widespread testing is available in time for the start of school on Sept. 8.
Russell said the reopening of public schools "will be a test of our ability to live with the virus." But she is confident that the province is "ready for the challenge."
Russell was joined at Tuesday's briefing by Marcel Lavoie, deputy minister of the francophone education system, and George Daley, deputy minister of the anglophone education system.
The next public briefing will be held Aug. 25.
Dominic Cardy, the minister of education, had been scheduled to give twice-weekly updates on the return-to-school plan until Sept. 8, but he stepped back from them after the provincial election call.
Daley said parents of "vulnerable" students can expect to hear from school officials, once they're back at work on Aug. 31. He said education staff will work with parents to determine whether those students need daily attendance or "altered" attendance, which could mean home learning.
He said vulnerable students could include those with compromised immune systems, "significant physical or mental health challenges," difficult home situations, or students with food insecurity.
Daley said education officials realize that some of those students may not have been considered "vulnerable" before the pandemic but now find themselves in more difficult situations.
Any parents who opt to keep their children home from school for non-medical reasons, or out of fear of COVID-19, must still complete a request form that can be found on the department's website, said Daley.
While some districts have already rolled out their plans for the school year, Daley said others are still working on them. He said parents can expect to hear more details over the next week or two.
He also warned parents that the back-to-school plans will evolve throughout the school year and that changes will be made as necessary.
Daley said parents of special-needs students will also be hearing from school officials, once they return to work, to see if changes are required to their personal plans. He acknowledged that anxiety levels are likely high as parents try to prepare their children for a pandemic-altered back-to-school.
The president of the union that represents EAs believes the province should hire more staff to help with special needs students.
With so many new rules and restrictions, Theresa McAllister is anticipating more behavioural issues with students.
"I think we're going to need extra hands on deck to accomplish what is asked of the students," said McAllister.
But Daley said additional EAs will not be hired. The reduced teacher-student ratios "will lessen the load on the EAs."
Some students with complex needs returned to school for three weeks in June, and McAllister said there were lessons learned from that experience.
"For the most part it went relatively well," she said. "There were some bumps and hiccups at the beginning … but overall I think it worked out pretty well for the short duration."
She said it's important to remember that not all students were in school at the time, so the setting wouldn't have been as crowded or complex as it will likely be when all students are back.
McAllister said many special-needs students will have a hard time with masks, and the changes in routine and classroom settings. That's why it's important to let parents know as soon as possible, so that they can prepare their children for the inevitable changes.
She said her members are still waiting for information from the Department of Education.
"There's still unanswered questions and there's a lot of anxiety," said McAllister.
The 16-page Return to School: Guide for Parents and the Public says no masks will be required in class for any age group, with one exception. In grades 9 to 12, masks must be worn if students can't be kept one-metre apart.
A student who becomes ill during the school day must wear a mask until picked up. And a student who is ill must stay home.
Masks for teachers
Teachers will also have to wear masks in some situations, explained Tara Chislett, a spokesperson for the education department.
For grades K-8, teachers have to wear masks in common areas, but they are not required to wear them when teaching in their class grouping.
For grades 9-12, teachers will be required to wear them in common areas, and when they are unable to physically distance one metre.
Specialty teachers, like those teaching art or physical education, will be required to wear a community face mask if they are unable to physically distance one metre. This applies to all grade levels.
Supply teachers and visiting professionals will be required to wear masks inside a classroom if they cannot physically distance two metres. This applies to all grade levels.
Under the school plan, not all students will have to wear masks on a school bus. If older students wear masks, they can share seats.
The plan allows only one child per two-passenger seat for kindergarten to Grade 5, except members of the same household. No masks are required on buses for kindergarten to Grade 5.
But for grades 6 to 12, masks are required if there is more than one child per seat, and those students will have to wear a mask when entering and exiting the bus. They can remove the mask if they're sitting alone or with members of the same household.
Daley said officials are still working out busing details, and parents will have the information they need before school starts.
To avoid congestion around schools during the busy drop-off and pickup times, Daley said it's possible that secondary sites will be set up a short distance from schools, or parents will be asked to drop their children off at staggered times.
He said some schools are able to accommodate the extra traffic of parents transporting their children to and from school, and changes may not be necessary. Ensuring safety around dropoffs and pickups is all part of the operational plan that principals have to develop.
"I'm confident that principals will figure it out," said Daley.
On Thursday, Russell said her department fully expects to see positive COVID-19 tests in schools. She said while it's not possible to "completely eliminate" the virus, its spread can be slowed.
The plan says a total school shutdown might not be necessary with one or more cases within the student and staff population.
Last week, Russell said parents won't necessarily be told if there's an outbreak at their school. She said "only affected persons and families will be contacted."
On Friday, education officials said schools will notify parents about a positive case in their school.
Public Health will only contact relevant individuals for contact-tracing purposes, said Danielle Elliott, a spokesperson for the Department of Education.
The guide for parents says, "Public Health will, through contact tracing and risk management, make decisions on who self-isolates. This may require an individual or several individuals, a classroom or multiple classrooms or even a school population to self-isolate."
If there's an outbreak and all students have to do remote learning:
Students in kindergarten to Grade 2 will get "paper-based" learning with daily check-ins.
Students in grades 3 to 5 will get paper-based learning with some technology and "routine teaching engagement."
Students in grades 6 to 12 will get technology based learning with regular teaching.
Breakfast and snack programs will continue.
Physical education directives have not been confirmed yet, but wind instruments and singing will be prohibited.
Class trips are not necessarily cancelled either, as long as physical distancing can be maintained.