The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District is set to allow more extracurricular activities in schools at the same time as students are seeing tighter public health restrictions.
Under guidelines released before the school year started, if a student exhibited two or more COVID-19 symptoms — including cough, fever, sore throat, headache, loss of appetite and a runny nose not related to allergies — they were to be kept home.
The exception was if students had small red or purple spots on their hands and feet; that alone was enough to warrant staying at home.
But according to new guidelines being distributed to parents by the Department of Health, that threshold for staying home has now been lowered to only one symptom from the list. So if a student has so much as a runny nose, they are being told to stay home.
Chief medical officer says clarification needed
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald characterized the change as a clarification.
"We've always said that if people feel unwell, that they should stay home. Then we had a lot of questions regarding, 'What if we only have one symptom?'" she said at the province's weekly COVID-19 briefing Thursday.
"And our recommendation was that if you only have one symptom, you stay home until you've 24 hours after you feel better. But that's not really new information."
Fitzgerald's characterization does not reflect the guidelines provided earlier this year, which would allow students to attend school if they were displaying a single symptom, apart from red or purple spots on their hands and feet.
Meanwhile, the NLESD is set to relax access to school facilities for extracurricular activities.
Many activities had already resumed last month. As of this coming Monday, more sports, including practices and tournaments, will be allowed in schools, but limited to students, provided public health guidelines are followed.
Those include physical distancing, a prohibition on spectators, and enough time between activities to disinfect the space.
"The province's plan … was that we should endeavour to offer as many usual activities as possible within health guidelines," said Tony Stack, CEO of the NLESD, on Friday.
"As a district, we've chosen to take a cautious and a measured approach. So it's designed to maximize student and staff safety, but also recognizing the importance of all types of extracurricular activities for students, be they sports, music or any other clubs or activities."
Move seems contradictory: NLTA
But the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association is opposed to the decision.
"It seems contradictory and counter-productive to increase nonessential access to school buildings and cohort mixing at the same time that public health officials have implemented more stringent precautions for screening," said NLTA president Dean Ingram on Friday.
"When the return-to-school plan happened there was concern with the degree to which school caretakers could handle the cleaning procedures needed to maintain the main school building. Now, you enhance the demands on them — will they be able to maintain that?"
Fitzgerald said cancelling extracurricular groups was not a step required by public health officials, but was a decision made early on by the district. She said doesn't see a problem with restarting them now.
"There have been guidelines put in place for the safe use of any property, and disinfection guidelines and things like that.… As long as those guidelines can be followed, then the risk to the public should be low."
Stack said if there is any indication of a surge of COVID-19 numbers in the province, the school district will pull the plug on extracurricular activities.
"We're going to monitor this very, very closely. Any indication, any concern whatsoever, and we will retract this because we're all about protecting our core business, which is the delivery of instruction, student learning that takes place during the normal school day," he said.
"We really are focused on the safety of students and staff and protecting the instructional time for that to occur."