Two leaders representing teachers and school staff in Newfoundland and Labrador say the province's return to school plan is promising, but hope all the work that needs to be done can be addressed by the projected return on Jan. 24.
"I'd like nothing more than Jan. 24 for us to be opening doors and going back in person," said Trent Langdon, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association.
"Obviously school is still online right now and we have a lot of our special services teachers in schools supporting our vulnerable kids, but we're supportive because we like the projected approach and we'll adjust as we go."
Education officials announced the return to school plan Thursday, which centres around giving each student, teacher and school staff member a package of five rapid COVID-19 tests.
Students will take two rapid tests 72 hours apart, one three days before school begins and one the morning of the first day of school. If both tests are negative, the child can return to school.
The final decision on the return date will be made on Jan. 19.
Langdon said he hopes for an efficient distribution of the rapid tests, which will be handled by the schools beginning next week. In the meantime, he hopes the proper protocols to help protect students, staff and the community will be in place by the deadline.
"Preventative stuff like rapid testing, but also when we get there making sure cohorting and non-essential use of schools is something that's put into place," he said.
Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, which represents about 2,000 workers in the education system, said the priority shown by government to get all children back in the classroom as safely as possible is a great sign.
"That has to be the premise, and I think everybody is on that one page," Earle said Friday. "I can understand the concerns of parents, I can understand the concerns of staff in schools, student assistants and bus drivers, but I also understand the impact on children across Newfoundland and Labrador."
While Earle said the union is working to gather a list of concerns from members to bring to a meeting with government, he said there has been good communication as all parties want the same goal of reopening schools safely.
"Likely there's going to be positive cases developed, but we must have protocols in place that protect the children and protect the student assistants and bus drivers that we represent, and obviously teachers and that in the education system."
'We're not experts in contact tracing'
Asked about specific items the Teachers' Association would like to see addressed before the targeted return date, Langdon had concerns on two issues — Contact tracing and appropriate PPE.
Due to the spike in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, public health has advised those who test positive for the virus to notify their own close contacts.
"We're not experts in contact tracing…That should be on public health. It shouldn't be on the responsibility of educators nor parents," he said.
Langdon said the NLTA is also encouraging government to look at the possibility of supplying KN95 masks to teachers and staff, which have multiple layers of material and use a mechanical respirator filter to block harmful particles that could carry the virus that causes COVID-19.
"Especially with our special services teachers, they're working directly with students who have medical needs and so on where aerosol spray is part of the job," he said.
"They certainly from our perspective would require KN95s."