ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The Newfoundland and Labrador government is hoping to have students back in school on Jan. 24, and widespread access to rapid COVID-19 tests forms the centrepiece of its back-to-school plan.
Education Minister Tom Osborne said Thursday his department is trying to balance the health risks posed by the highly transmissible Omicron variant with the mental health risks of keeping kids cooped up at home, away from their teachers and friends.
If schools reopen on Jan. 24, students, teachers and staff will have to take two rapid COVID-19 tests at home, approximately 72 hours apart, before they can return. If the tests are negative, they're free to go to school, Osborne said.
Until then, classes will remain online. "While I know that this is not perfect, it has allowed us to minimize learning loss during these difficult times," he told reporters in St. John's.
The Canadian Paediatric Society has made repeated appeals to provincial governments to keep schools open, he added.
"They have stated … that deteriorating health and well-being of children and youth is also a public health emergency," Osborne said. "Our priority is to return to in-person class education when it is safe to do so."
Kids in Newfoundland and Labrador from kindergarten to Grade 12 have been learning remotely since Jan. 4, because of a spike in COVID-19 cases that began the week before Christmas. Since Dec. 22, the number of daily reported infections has hovered around 500. Officials reported 520 new cases on Thursday and 229 new positive results from a batch of tests sent in the past weeks to out-of-province labs because local capacity was overwhelmed.
Officials said eight people were hospitalized with the disease, including three in critical care. They said there were 6,131 active cases in the province, though that figure did not include people who may have the disease but do not qualify for a polymerase chain reaction test to confirm their infection.
Rapid tests have largely been tough to find in Newfoundland and Labrador, but Osborne said Thursday that will change: each student will be allotted five test kits, two of which are to be used on Jan. 21 and the morning of Jan. 24, before they head back to school.
The remaining tests can be used if students have symptoms of COVID-19, he said, noting that the province has put together a guide for returning to school, which includes information on when to use the rapid tests. Test kits are already being distributed to schools across the province, a government news release said Thursday.
The government said air filtration systems have been installed in every classroom and in most school common areas throughout the province. A final decision on whether schools are safe to open on Jan. 24 will be made and announced next Wednesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2022.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press