P.E.I. releases back-to-school plan aiming for 'near-normal' year

·5 min read
Students sit in class at Bloomfield Elementary School in P.E.I. in September 2020. P.E.I. released its back-to-school plan for the 2021-22 school year on Monday.  (Jane Robertson/CBC - image credit)
Students sit in class at Bloomfield Elementary School in P.E.I. in September 2020. P.E.I. released its back-to-school plan for the 2021-22 school year on Monday. (Jane Robertson/CBC - image credit)

P.E.I. released its back-to-school plan on Monday, aiming to give students and staff a "near-normal" experience in the second autumn of the COVID-19 pandemic but recommending some mask-wearing when schools reopen.

"It is our goal to have Island children return to school, under as normal conditions as possible, for a full year of in-class learning," Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison said in statement.

The plan, posted to the government website, offers guidance that changes depending on whether the Island is in a "low risk" or "elevated-risk" scenario when it comes to COVID-19 transmission.

"Provided the epidemiology remains consistent, it is expected that all Island schools will begin in September in a low-risk scenario with enhanced mask protocols," the plan says.

"Should the situation change, school operational plans similar to those used during the last school year may be enacted."

'An anxious time'

The document has already been criticized by some. The Prince Edward Island Home and School Federation said the government didn't make what should be expected from students and staff clear enough, and that its mask recommendations don't go far enough.

"I fully realize that people do have some anxiety about going back to school, it's an anxious time in any year," said Norbert Carpenter, director of the P.E.I. Public Schools Branch.

"However we've had low numbers of COVID transmission in this province, high vaccination rates, some measures at the border that do keep us protected within our communities."

"What we're doing here in P.E.I. has been working and I think that when parents are looking at this plan and they're looking at the number of people that have been vaccinated, I think they're very comfortable," said Gilles Arsenault, superintendent of the French Language School Board.

"From the feedback that I've received, people … seem to be comfortable in sending their kids back to school."

Arsenault said the guidelines leave some room for schools to tweak their operational plans in order to meet requirements.

"I think the plan that was presented through the [Chief] Public Health Office is very flexible one and it's one that the schools will be able to implement," Arsenault said. "We're looking at the well-being of the students and I think this plan here answers what we were looking for."

Mask measures

The Chief Public Health Office recommends some enhanced mask measures remain in place until at least October, with masks recommended:

  • For anybody moving through school buildings (not seated in classrooms).

  • For staff in classrooms from kindergarten to Grade 6.

  • For anyone on school buses.

Those rules are required due to increasing presence of the delta variant in Canada and the lack of approved vaccines for children younger than 12, the province said in a news release.

In general, masks are "strongly recommended" for the unvaccinated as well as for staff who work with students who are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 whenever physical distancing is not possible, regardless of those employees' vaccination status.

Masks are not required, but everyone who wants to wear one should be supported, the plan says.

Gatherings and cohorting

Neither cohorting nor physical distancing is required, though the latter is encouraged in indoor common spaces outside the classroom. Buses can return to normal occupancy levels.

Gatherings and school sport activities must follow current community public health measures: gathering limits of 200 outdoors but 100 if the activity includes close contact; and 100 indoors.

The plan also recommends proper hand hygiene, regular cleaning and disinfection of surfaces, and improvements to ventilation where needed.

Contact tracing after a positive case will continue.

Cohorting, physical distancing and further masking recommendations could all return if the province ends up in a state of "elevated risk," the plan warns. The plan doesn't specify a case load or other statistic that might trigger the stricter rules.

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Staffing, curriculum

The document does say: "We anticipate a near-normal school year for the 2021-2022 school year."

The plan also highlights that the province had previously announced hiring to support the "physical and mental well-being" of employees, with the extra staff commitment broken down like this:

  • 50 teachers.

  • 34 education assistants.

  • 15 school counsellors.

  • 14 youth service workers.

  • 4 autism consultants.

  • 21 bus drivers.

  • 44 cleaners.

  • 19 administrative support personnel.

The plan says education authorities will work with the Chief Public Health Office and Health P.E.I. to develop pop-up immunization clinics in schools as necessary. Students aged five to 11 will be encouraged to be vaccinated when government approval comes for those ages.

Vaccinations for staff, however, will not be mandatory.

"We're working with our unions, [P.E.I. Teachers' Federation] and [Canadian Union of Public Employees] to monitor the situation," Carpenter said. "Vaccinations at this point aren't mandatory. However, we're always prepared to adapt and take other measures if we need to."

As for the curriculum, the province says it will be a mix of pre-pandemic and mid-pandemic learning.

And while its remote learning plan went largely unneeded last year, it is being updated and will be available "in the coming weeks."

The general back-to-school plan says there are "alternative education plans (online learning) for those individuals who are at higher risk of COVID-19 and are not attending in person."

Other back-to-school plans in Atlantic Canada:

The plan was released by the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning, in partnership with the Public Schools Branch and La Commission scolaire de langue français, based on Chief Public Health Office guidelines.

The province says P.E.I. is the only jurisdiction in Canada that has maintained in-class learning throughout the pandemic.

After reporting almost no COVID-19 cases in June and July, Prince Edward Island has maintained a single-digit active case load in August.

Three new cases related to travel were confirmed on Saturday, bringing the province's overall case count to 224.

COVID-19 cases on P.E.I.

More from CBC P.E.I.:

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