While there's still no timeline for when in-class education will resume, following an outbreak of a coronavirus variant that put Newfoundland and Labrador in Alert Level 5 lockdown, the provincial teachers' union is hoping to get more information that will lead to stricter safety protocols in schools.
Dean Ingram, head of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association, said Wednesday he'd received no "specific information," but has heard that around a dozen teachers, in addition to over 100 students, were infected with the B117 variant at Mount Pearl Senior High.
Eastern Health did confirm that 145 students and/or staff at Mount Pearl Senior High have been infected with COVID-19.
That accounts for the largest portion of the approximately 185 students and/or staff associated infected at 22 schools around the Eastern Health region, including five high schools, four junior high schools, and 13 elementary schools in the St. John's metro area.
Eastern Health initially said specific information on the other schools involved wouldn't be released, citing privacy concerns. In an about-turn, however, the health authority disclosed the names of the schools Wednesday evening.
It did not say how many positive cases were connected to each school.
"It is important to note that numbers do not distinguish between whether a case attended school or not during his/her period of communicability," the statement said.
Ingram said the NLTA wants to know more.
"I want to stress that we're not seeking information just for the sake of information; respect for privacy has to be sacrosanct," Ingram said.
"That being said, though, we do know that the residents of this province were informed last spring of how many cases were connected to the Caul's cluster, and I don't see how the extent of the current outbreak is any less important."
That information is something he hopes will be provided by public health officials or the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District before any decisions are made about resuming in-person classes.
I'm not sold on full disclosure, I'm not sure that's gonna prove anything or help anybody. - Don Coombs
The NLESD said it is up to Eastern Health to make any such announcements, and when the health authority did name the 22 schools, it caught the district off guard.
"It was a little surprising to us, because it has been a departure from normal practice," said Tony Stack, the district CEO, on Thursday morning.
Ingram said the NLTA has long been concerned about whether guidelines around mask-wearing and physical distancing in schools go far enough.
"We do believe that there's an opportunity to learn from the experience and reconsider what public health precautions for our schools should look like, but this does require full disclosure of how all our schools have been affected, including what's known about the interactions at school, but also various school-sponsored activities as a source of transmission," Ingram said.
"What concerns me right now, and what's concerned the association since last July, is that our teachers, our students, their families, are subject to significantly lesser public health protocols and precautions in schools than you'll find in any other public place in this province."
Ingram said the outbreak could serve as an example of what can happen if safety precautions aren't strict enough, or aren't followed.
"I think the most important thing is to take what we've seen and move forward. Take what we've seen to date as to what can happen in our schools if an outbreak occurs and build plans to strengthen and reinforce the necessary measures. We need to protect our schools; protecting our schools protects our communities," Ingram said.
"When we have a position where our students can safely return to our schools, part of that assurance of safety has to be enhancing public health measures within the schools to ensure that when students return, the likelihood of a repeat of what we've seen these last two weeks is as minimal as possible."
That certainly seems to be on the mind of Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, who said during Wednesday's COVID-19 briefing that the variant may change things.
"I think right now what we're seeing, our initial investigation, at least, at Eastern Health, we're certainly seeing spread not just within the school but in social activities as well, through sporting events and through other social activities," Fitzgerald said.
"This variant certainly does change the way we look at things, and we are looking at all of that right now as we look to how we move out of Level 5."
'I'm not sold on full disclosure'
Don Coombs, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils, said given the smaller number of infections at other schools, he's not sure releasing detailed information would be helpful.
"I'm not really sold on that. I don't think it serves any purpose. The school in Mount Pearl was identified because of numbers, but … we don't want to target smaller schools in rural Newfoundland," Coombs said.
"As long as we've got the protocols in place, from a federation point of view … I'm not sold on full disclosure. I'm not sure that's gonna prove anything or help anybody. I think that may be a stigma that will be in some smaller communities, and certainly we don't want that on our young students and adults. There's enough stress on the parents now and on the students with virtual learning, being at home, trying to adjust."
District CEO Stack agreed.
"I'm not sure what it accomplishes, releasing the names of schools," Stack said, adding he is concerned about how students and staff will be affected by the announcement.
When it comes to safety protocols in schools, Coombs said in the last year, measures in place have generally been effective. The outbreak is an obvious exception.
"I think for the most parts it's proven to have worked. It's an unfortunate incident that's happened, that it's escalated, to involve students at a school," Coombs said.
Coombs said it's best to defer to public health officials like Fitzgerald on when it will be safe to resume in-class learning, but he doesn't expect that to happen in the immediate future.
"We want to take direction from Dr. Fitzgerald; she's the expert in this field … and from our point of view, as long as the federation of school councils is hearing from the parents that the want their kids back in a healthy, safe environment, that's what we want," Coombs said, adding he has "full confidence" in advice from Fitzgerald and the public health team.
"Let's ensure we do things right. Let's not jump the gun."