Parents frustrated, teachers' union calls for better safety as N.L. kids move to online learning

·4 min read
Schools in Newfoundland and Labrador are going online to start the new year.  (Mike Moore/CBC - image credit)
Schools in Newfoundland and Labrador are going online to start the new year. (Mike Moore/CBC - image credit)
Mike Moore/CBC
Mike Moore/CBC

Some parents are left feeling frustrated after Wednesday's announcement that schools in Newfoundland and Labrador are moving to online learning after the holiday break.

The provincial government made the announcement during an unscheduled COVID-19 briefing, saying schools will begin online instruction starting Jan. 4, with an update every Thursday regarding how the following week will look.

"There are a lot of parents like myself who are not in a position to home-school, to keep their kids home, and care for kids and work at the same time," Gillian Pearson, a parent of two, told CBC News.

The move comes as COVID-19 case numbers continue to skyrocket in most areas of the province and as the Omicron variant quickly takes hold, causing record-setting daily increases in new cases.

Pearson works from home, but said it's difficult to balance work and parenting while her son, who's in Grade 1, is attending classes online. She said she has no choice but to let her son use a tablet or watch YouTube videos all day when classes are over in order to keep him engaged and entertained while she works.

She said she has no more personal, vacation or family leave days left to take in order to take care of her children in the event they have to remain home full-time. She said a saving factor is that her youngest child can still attend daycare if he's not sick.

Eddy Kennedy/CBC
Eddy Kennedy/CBC

"My family has only kept five to 10 contacts, we mask, we've been vaccinated, we did everything. And I thought all of these restrictions and mandates were so things like school could stay open," Pearson said.

"I know it's only temporary, but that could feel like a really long time.... A lot of parents feel like they're drowning. I know I do."

Pearson said she also has concerns for the children who may not have the same benefits as hers — such as unstable care-givers, food security or proper access to technology — adding some kids are falling through the cracks.

"For kids who are forced to stay home for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, and they don't have the same access to developmentally appropriate care and support, we really don't know the lasting impact that that's going to make," she said.

"That really scares me. We're two years into this right now and we still haven't figured out a way to keep kids in school."

Pearson acknowledged the fact that not all parents are facing the same challenges, and some may be glad to have their kids safe at home. She said some do feel guilty for having to send their kids to school where possible exposure to COVID-19 is a reality.

Level playing field

Provincial NDP leader and education critic Jim Dinn gave his stamp of approval on government's decision to move schools online for the safety of students.

However, Dinn said, resources need to be addressed.

On Wednesday Education Minister Tom Osborne said the ability to deliver online learning for students in Kindergarten to Grade 6 is not dependent on school-issued Chromebooks. Osborne said Chromebooks purchased last year were meant for students in Grade 7 to Grade 12. He said most personal computers, tablets or smart phones will suffice for younger students.

"I believe that if online learning is important you really need to look at all [students], from K to 12," Dinn told CBC News.

"You can't just depend on what resources the school may or may not have and what resources the families may or may not have. There's got to be some sort of level playing field."

Danny Arsenault/CBC
Danny Arsenault/CBC

Looking ahead, when students do return to in-person classes, Dinn is wondering what's going to be put in place to keep them safe. He said he has spoken with teachers who say cohorting isn't working.

"In talking to teachers, just trying to keep kids separated and safe is not going to happen," Dinn said.

"And you've got classes already up to 32 or more in a confined space. That's elbow room, and unless we're going to address that we're going to have more transmission or we're going to be online for the rest of the year."

In a media release on Thursday, the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association said it supports the move to online learning but is also urging stronger safety precautions once in-person classes resume.

"We need to be proactive, so that when students are back in schools, we can be confident that the precautions in place are up to the Omicron challenge, to protect them, teachers, and all school staff," said president Trent Langdon.

"What was in place before might not be enough for Omicron and to ensure sustainability of in-person learning. We should be thinking about other options, like reducing class sizes, greater restrictions on non-essential access to school buildings, availability of rapid testing, and the provision of N95 masks for teachers."

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