Newfoundland and Labrador children will be back in the classroom on Monday, Jan. 24, barring any dramatic changes in epidemiology, says the education minister.
“Our priority is to return to in-person, in-class education when it has been safe to do so,” Tom Osborne told reporters during a virtual briefing in St. John’s Thursday, Jan. 13.
Authorities are already distributing rapid antigen test kits to every school in the province, and the plan is to get them out to every child in the province before Friday, Jan. 21.
Each child will have to take one of the tests on that day, and then again on the morning classes resume.
That will leave parents or guardians with three extra kits to be used throughout the year in situations where mild symptoms may lead them to suspect their kids may have the coronavirus.
Teachers and staff will also be given kits.
Osborne said arrangements will be made by each school for parents to pick up the kits next week, but arrangements will be made to get the kits to anyone who can't pick them up in person.
He said the department will confirm early next week whether the plan is still going ahead, but added that a simple rise in cases will not, on its own, be enough to warrant cancelling it.
Osborne also admitted case counts may rise once classes get underway.
“Can we expect an increase in cases? That’s quite likely,” he said.
“Pandemics are unpredictable. We have a solid plan here and we have room to evaluate changing circumstances.”
As a pre-emptive measure against teacher absenteeism, Osborne said the province is working with the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD) to maximize the availability of substitute teachers.
“What we want is to avoid the disruption of continuously moving back and forth to online learning as a result of educators needing to isolate,” he said.
Osborne said the determination to reopen schools was based on recent research that shows online learning is having a detrimental effect on children’s mental and social development.
He cited the Canadian Pediatric Society, which co-authored a letter last week saying virtual schooling is harming children's health.
"Online learning is harmful. Social isolation and prolonged in-person school closures have precipitated increases in unhealthy behaviours — such as excessive screen time, reduced physical activity and substance use," it said.
When it comes to online learning, however, NLESD CEO Tony Stack said only routine arrangements will be made to keep students who are sick or isolating in the loop. That will not include any sort of online instruction.
That doesn’t sit well with Conservative and NDP critics, who say the tools should be there to allow some sort of alternative for students who have mental-health issues or other medical vulnerabilities.
Progressive Conservative Interim Leader David Brazil says he has already heard from parents who are concerned their children may be left behind if they can’t be in school.
”There has to be a hybrid system that can be developed,” Brazil told reporters.
NDP Interim Leader Jim Dinn said the tools are already there to implement an alternative.
Both Brazil and Dinn said daycares should also be given rapid tests, and Dinn said he is concerned where replacement rapid tests will come from once all of them have been used.
He said many students will likely have used up the five-test kit in the first week.
“Then what?” Dinn said.
But both party leaders say they are behind the plan in principle, and the deployment of rapid tests is the right way to go.
“We need to get (schools) up and running,” Brazil said.
Osborne said he has no trouble counting on parents to use the honour system when it comes to using the rapid tests honestly.
“I don’t think we need to convince people in this province to do the right thing,” he said.
Thursday’s briefing included a demonstration by Dr. Rosann Sceviour of Public Health of the use of a rapid test. A clip of that demo will be posted online so parents can consult it.
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram