All schools in the St. John's area will close Thursday for at least two weeks, amid an explosive outbreak of COVID-19 in the metro region.
The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District announced Wednesday afternoon that it is suspending in-class instruction and extracurricular activities for all schools in the St. John's metro area, as well as those in Bell Island, Mobile and Witless Bay.
The board said its decision comes on the advice of public health officials.
Students will remain at home from Feb. 11 to Feb. 26.
Teachers are required to report to schools and begin online instruction, beginning Thursday for high school students, Friday for intermediate students and Monday for primary students.
Almost 100 people have been confirmed positive in the region since Monday, many of them under 20 years old. On Wednesday, shortly after the school board announced its decision, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald announced 53 cases, a one-day record for the province.
The province's French school district said classes at École des Grands Vents and École Rocher-du-Nord are suspended until March 1. There is no mention in the statement that students in those schools will switch to online learning.
Late Wednesday afternoon, College of the North Atlantic said it was closing its three St. John's-area campuses: Seal Cove, Ridge Road, and Prince Philip Drive (including the Anna Templeton Centre and Topsail Road Office). The child care centre at the Prince Philip Drive campus will stay open.
Programs will move online starting Feb. 15 and will stay online until March 8. Students can collect their personal items on Thursday, Feb. 11 only.
Union wants teachers working from home
Dean Ingram, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association, says he's pleased the decision has been made to close schools, but would have liked to have seen the decision made earlier.
"Students and staff don't live their lives in a school bubble. Our metro area schools are so interconnected, that's a reality that has to be considered in our response and any decision-making around this situation," he said.
Ingram's comments come after days of the union asking why elementary and middle schools in the region remained one of the few areas untouched by the measures.
More than 7,100 students were already out of class for two days, ahead of Wednesday's announcement. Two private schools in St. John's had also cancelled their classes for the rest of the week and moved online.
Ingram pointed to Fitzgerald's comments encouraging those who can work from home to do so, and said that government has bought laptops and other equipment that would allow teachers to do that.
"Teachers teach students. If students aren't physically present in the classroom, and those same teachers are fully equipped to work from home, I'm at a loss as to think about why government wouldn't want to seize the opportunity to limit the number of people who are moving around and interacting," he said.
When asked in Wednesday's briefing why why teachers could not conduct classes from home, Furey did not provide a specific answer.
"This is an evolving situation.… I'm sure there will be flexibility," he said.
Another union echoed the NLTA sentiment.
Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees president Jerry Earle said in an interview that many union members who could work from home — not just teachers — were required to report to their workplaces on Wednesday morning.
"Every worker has to be considered now, in this metro area, to get this under control," Earle said. "These people are not asking to stop working. They're asking to work remotely."
'Right thing to do'
School district CEO Tony Stack says moving classes online now is "the right thing to do," and teachers and schools are ready to make the switch.
"We totally support Dr. Fitzgerald and her team and the decision here, the recommendation to us, we adhered to it," he said.
"We planned for this, we provided training to our teachers, all schools have developed their own-site specific plans for virtual learning. We hoped we'd never have to use them, but here we are."
Stack said the move away from in-person instruction won't be without some glitches and will be a big adjustment for teachers, students and families, but he said it is very possible for students to learn online.
Stack said schools have already distributed computers and other equipment to families who need it and are ready to address issues for other families, but he doesn't expect problems with internet access to be as significant in the St. John's area as in some rural regions.
He said it was always part of the provincial plan to have teachers in schools if classes moved online, especially because there will still be a very small number of students who will still have to be in school, but he is confident that the vast majority of children will still learn well online.
"We have every confidence and trust in our school administrators who have planned this, who've prepared for this. Their leadership has been exemplary," he said.
"And the teachers, the brilliant teachers, that we know are totally focused on doing the very best they can for students, we have every confidence and faith that that will occur and while it won't replicate face-to-face instruction, we can still have some pretty good learning happening."
Learning from last spring
Students have also spoken out since community transmission was confirmed in the St. John's area, detailing their worries and anxieties about a potential return to the classroom.
The entire scenario has a sense of déjà vu, with numbers of active cases and single-day counts paralleling the spring of 2020's initial COVID-19 outbreak. In the face of that, one psychologist said people should take heart from the knowledge gained last year.
"We have been through it, and we know so much more than we did last April," said Dr. Janine Hubbard, adding that testing, personal protective equipment and sanitization protocols are now well established.
For anyone feeling overwhelmed, she said, it could help to take deep breaths, stop "doomscrolling" — the practice of surfing or scrolling through troubling or depressing news online — and chart through lessons learned from last spring.
"Reflect on what went well, what didn't go so well for me. What are the things that, had I known then, I would've done differently?" she said.
Hubbard advised parents to talk to their teenagers candidly to fully understand their movements, their contacts and their fears.
"Listen, support, validate, don't judge," she said.
"What they may be really worried about might not be something you think is of major consequence, but for them, it's a big deal."