Education Minister Tom Osborne announced a major shift in the provincial government's back-to-school policy on Tuesday, saying students in grades 7 to 12 will have to wear masks in classrooms where it's not possible to keep a distance of one metre between classmates.
The news came 24 hours after Osborne appeared on CBC's CrossTalk and took tough questions from parents and teachers, many of whom focused on masks and a lack of appropriate physical distancing.
It also happened just hours before a planned rally, organized by the group Safe September NL, on the steps of Confederation Building in St. John's.
"It's because of the concerns raised by educators, primarily, on social distancing," Osborne said Tuesday.
Masks will be mandatory in hallways, and may be taken off when students take their seats if there is a metre between them and other students.
The decision only applies to grades 7 through 12, since students in those grades move from class to class more than younger students, and they have a better chance of getting used to wearing masks since they are older.
Osborne also announced public exams have also been cancelled for the first half of the school year, keeping in line with other Atlantic provinces, but June exams might go ahead.
"I'm very open-minded. But I've been in this position for 12 days," he said. "I want to have an opportunity to look at what is in the absolute best interests of our students on whether or not we cancel public exams for June as well."
More buses, but specific details to come
He also said additional buses will be available at the end of September, and all students who are eligible for busing will receive it.
Osborne said he was up late on Monday speaking with bus operators around the island and finding ways to get more buses into action for the school year.
The province's back-to-school plan dictates only 46 children can be on a school bus at a time, which will leave some kids needing a ride to school next week.
The minister said his department is also looking at increasing the number of student assistants and public health professionals in schools.
More details are expected to be announced Thursday. Students are due back in class on Sept. 9.
More can be done: NLTA
Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association president Dean Ingram said the announcements made by the provincial government have been promising, but there is room for improvement.
"There is movement that we've seen in the past two weeks since Minister Osborne [and] Premier Furey took over portfolios that we weren't seeing previously," Ingram said. "But there's still a discrepancy between the standards expected in public venues in this province … and what we're going to be seeing in our schools."
"We've heard since March: 'people, space, time and place.' If two metres was required in a community centre, why is that same standard not applicable to our schools?"
Ingram said teachers have continued to call for more use of masks in classrooms than has already been announced, and want to make sure concerns over other personal protective equipment and teacher health are addressed.
"Had we seen the approach back in the spring, back in the early summer, that we've seen in the last couple weeks, I have all confidence we would have [been] much further ahead," he said.
"Is there time to get it right? Yes, there is. But as I've said previously, the clock is ticking, and we're at that stage now where that hourglass is running empty."
Teachers will return to the classroom on Wednesday.
Changes come just before rally
About 100 people attended the rally Tuesday afternoon, including Osborne, who was listening to the speeches and talking to people in the crowd.
Jillian Reid, a Grade 1 teacher at Holy Redeemer Elementary in Spaniard's Bay and one of the group's organizers, said at the start of the event that the efforts of teachers and parents to get government to take more action on the return-to-school plan had worked. But more changes were needed.
"I do want to recognize that we are making progress.… We are starting to make a difference," she said to the crowd, who cheered her remarks.
Reid said teachers and administrators want school to open, but existing problems are only exacerbated amid the pandemic. One of the group's top demands is a reduction in the number of students in each classroom.
"We know that the caps are too large," she said, drawing a big round of applause.
"I do understand that there is a push to get back to normal, but I do not believe that normal for schools was working before, and I do not think it should be reinforced now," she told the crowd.
A similar sentiment was shared by parent Catherine Stone, joining in on the call for smaller class sizes.
"Anything less than smaller class sizes in our schools during a global pandemic, be it low prevalence or not, is simply irresponsible," she said to loud applause. "It's irresponsible."
Speakers at the event included Ingram, PC MHA Craig Pardy, PC Leader Ches Crosbie and NDP MHA Jim Dinn.
Earlier, Reid spoke to CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show, criticizing the government for what she called inaction, after the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District submitted a report to the provincial government just over three months ago with recommendations to address potential back-to-school problems.
"The [district] came up with a beautiful re-entry plan back in May. And then the government, which many teachers were not aware of, many of the public were not aware of … had kept it under wraps," she told The St. John's Morning Show on Monday.