N.W.T. Education Minister says more info on school closures coming

The N.W.T.'s Education Minister says details on what comes next — following a recommendation to close schools for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year — should be coming on Monday, March 30.

R.J. Simpson elaborated on next steps Thursday morning after he and Northwest Territories education leaders recommended Wednesday night that schools close for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year due to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The recommendation was made because of "significant health concerns posed by COVID-19" and the importance of practising social distancing, as advised by the chief public health officer.

Education leaders have shared the recommendation with district education authorities, the bodies that hold the power, under the Education Act, to close N.W.T. Junior Kindergarten to Grade 12 schools. The release says school closures will be announced by their respective education councils. 

"This wasn't something we took lightly," said Simpson. "But we looked at the situation in Canada and around the world, and it doesn't look like in the next couple months we're going to be in the position to get back to school."

We have an entire year of students here, whose future seems really uncertain. That's a priority for us. - R. J. Simpson, N.W.T. education minister

By making the decision now, Simpson said the education authorities were able to free up people to work on a plan for next steps that will outline how education will continue outside of classrooms, as well as address vital programs like school lunches and mental health supports.

"We have to figure out — how can we get education [delivered]?" Simpson said. 

"We know not everyone has the internet. So we have to find out, can we have teachers who are sending homework home, and somehow getting homework back and marking it, and providing feedback."

Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada

The recommendation to shutter schools for the rest of the year was made after Simpson met via teleconference with the Northwest Territories Teachers' Association and chairs of the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency, Dettah and Ndilo District Education Authorities, the Commission scolaire francophone des Territoires du Nord-Ouest, the Beaufort Delta Education Council, the Dehcho Divisional Education Council, the South Slave Divisional Education Council, the Sahtu Divisional Education Council, Yellowknife Education District No. 1 and Yellowknife Catholic Schools.

Simpson, the Minister of Education, Culture and Employment, had previously recommended that all schools close until after Easter.

COVID-19 situation 'evolved substantially'

The board of Yellowknife Education District No. 1 voted on Tuesday to close schools for the rest of the school year. The board of trustees for the Commission scolaire francophone des T.N.-O says  École Allain St-Cyr and École Boréale will also be closed until the end of June. 

The Hay River District Education Authority has also voted to close schools. 

In the best interests of health and safety, that call had to be made. - Mark Harris, chair of  the Hay River District Education Authority

"In the best interests of health and safety, that call had to be made so that we could make some decisions going forward to introduce a platform to families and students as to how learning and education will follow from now until the end of June," said board chair Mark Harris.

Simpson said Thursday that he was unsure how detailed the plan released Monday would be, but that his staff and education officials are working around the clock to deliver as much as they can. 

"For a lot of kids, most of their meals are eaten at school. That's one of the big ones for me. And so how do we get that in the homes? How do we make sure kids are still fed?"

Many school employees self-isolating

Last Saturday, Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief public health officer, ordered the closure of the territory's border with limited exceptions. All N.W.T. residents returning to the territory are required to self-isolate for 14 days.

Because the order came down while many teachers and staff were out of the territory for spring break, a significant number of school employees are now self-isolating, reads the release.

Donna Lee/CBC

Simpson said the Education Department is meeting daily with N.W.T. education superintendents and the teachers' association to discuss, among other issues, the "continuity of educational programing." It says plans are being adjusted as new information comes in from the chief public health officer.

Simpson noted that he did not believe that any teachers would be laid off as a result of the closure, and also noted his concern for students set to graduate in the summer.

"One of the big things is we support the Grade 12 students. That was the first thing that I thought about when this all started. We have an entire year of students here, whose future seems really uncertain. That's a priority for us."

The government says the department is looking at what other provinces are doing, and specifically at Alberta, since the N.W.T.'s curriculum is largely based on Alberta's.

In a news release, it said all options for continuing education are being explored.

Speaking directly to parents, Simpson acknowledged the difficulties in the uncertainty of what comes next, but pledged to continue delivering information and updates as fast as possible.

"I just want to let everyone know we're aware of that concern. Everyone's working very hard to come up with a plan."