Province lays out education plan for schools across the island and Labrador

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Some students in Newfoundland and Labrador are headed back to school.

Students in the central, western and northern parts of the province will return to in-class instruction starting on Wednesday, Education Minister Tom Osborne and Newfoundland and Labrador English School District CEO Tony Stack announced Friday.

“I want to think Dr. Fitzgerald for her guidance with these enhanced protocols to keep students and staff safe in light of the new realities of the COVID-19 variant,” said Osborne. “I know these are significant changes for students, parents, teachers and staff, but as the chief medical officer of health indicated, the variant is a new virus.

“Her guidance is meant to keep us safe.”

The announcement comes on the heels of Friday’s public health update from the province’s chief medical officer of health.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald informed people the Avalon Peninsula will be held under Alert Level 5 of the pandemic response plan, while the rest of the province would move to Alert Level 4 starting at midnight Friday.

Under Scenario 3 of the return-to-school plan, schools on the Avalon Peninsula will remain in virtual sessions for the next two weeks. That will take them to March 12 before a decision will be made to return students to in-school sessions.

There is a provision to allow students with complex needs to have access to in-school learning if their families want to take advantage of that.

The rest of the province’s students will spend the first two days of next week taking part in virtual classes and will return to in-school sessions on Wednesday.

"Ordinarily, it is a 14-day cycle for most schools and all of the curriculum interaction will occur within those 14 days. It is just that it is going to be 50 per cent of the time,” said Stack.

Further to the division for in-school sessions, schools in the other regions of the province will be further divided.

Those schools that can manage it will return to Scenario 1 — close to normal — while others will move to Scenario 2 for intermediate and high school classes.

That means those classes will be cut in half and students will attend sessions under a staggered schedule of in-school and virtual learning. There are 50 schools that will fall under this scenario, typically schools with high enrolment.

Regardless of which of the above scenarios a school falls under, there are universal public health regulations that will be set for them.

Students from kindergarten to Grade 3 are not required to wear a mask during the school day, but they will be required to wear one while on the bus.

All students from Grade 4 to Grade 12 will be required to wear masks all day whether in class or on the school bus. Students in Grade 7 to Grade 12 are required to keep a distance of two metres (six feet) between them at all times.

Staff will be required to wear a Level1 medical mask and a face shield at all times while teaching, and at any other time when a two-metre distance cannot be maintained. Personal protective equipment will be provided by the district.

The school board does not anticipate when there will be a return of extracurricular activities such as school sports, choirs and bands.

“I trust the guidance of Public Health and our chief medical officer of health,” said Osborne. “With the additional protocols that have been put in place, I believe that our schools are as safe as they can be and our early learning and child-care centres are as safe as they can be.”

Included in the announcement was the indication that outside the Avalon Peninsula, regulated child care will be allowed to return to full capacity. Masks and face shields are mandatory.

Because of this, the provincial government will no longer reimburse fees of absentee children for centres.

As long as Avalon child-care centres stay in the current status, the government will to pay those fees.

In a news release Friday afternoon, the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association said some of the increased health precautions were the correct move, but the NLTA has some concerns.

The association said the decision to keep Avalon Peninsula schools under Scenario 3 is the right decision, and it supports some of the public health measures enacted for schools in other regions.

“However, we still have concerns about the ability of many schools to maintain effective student cohorting and the continued challenges they will face with respect to proper physical distancing and poor ventilation,” NLTA president Dean Ingram stated. “We would certainly like to know more about what role interactions at school and school-sponsored activities played in the recent outbreak and how this, and the science around the B.1.1.7 virus variant, have been factored into the decisions made.

“An abundance of caution should always be the rule.”

The NLTA also sought clarification on whether teachers will be included in the second phase of vaccine rollouts around the province and said schools should not be the weak link in the province’s COVID-19 response.

“Schools are where all of our homes, workplaces and community contacts come together,” said Ingram. “Strengthening protections for students and staff, and by extension their families, to make school re-entry safe and sustainable for all should be the focus.”

Nicholas Mercer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Central Voice