Some parents and teachers in Yukon are concerned about the territorial government's new method to handle COVID-19 cases in schools. It's also sparked criticism from the Yukon NDP.
In an email sent to parents late on Wednesday from the Department of Education, the government said it will stop reporting COVID-19 cases in schools. It reads in part that the government "will decrease the amount of case and contact management work that is done for the schools and will no longer be issuing school exposure notifications."
Instead, the government will monitor staff and student absences in schools.
The email also noted that some schools are temporarily pivoting to remote learning due to staffing shortages.
The announcement comes as the number of COVID-19 cases in the Yukon continues to surge, with cases in all communities throughout the territory. As of Friday, there were 479 active cases, according to the territory's website.
Last week, the territory said students were to return to in-classroom learning after the holidays. At the time, Dr. Catherine Elliott, the territory's acting chief medical officer of health, said the "level of risk in schools is acceptable" and that she's "confident in the decision of students returning to classrooms this year."
In a statement issued Friday, the Yukon NDP condemned the move to halt COVID-19 reporting in schools, saying the government is "removing the ability of the school administration to make informed decisions depending on case count and exposure in their school."
Party leader Kate White called for more transparency around the decision-making process.
"If this is the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, then the government needs to be shouting it from the roof tops to inform the school communities," said White in the news release.
Mixed reactions from parents
Shari McIntosh, whose two children attend Christ the King Elementary School in Whitehorse, echoes this sentiment.
"Our family has been cautiously watching school numbers and we sort of live by that guide of exposure notices in our classroom or in our school to see whether we need to keep our kids home," said McIntosh.
"Without those exposure notices and information on what's happening in the schools, we have no tools left to make informed decisions anymore as parents."
Meanwhile, Thane Phillips, who has two children at Whitehorse Elementary School, says he's fine with the change.
"I feel that it's a reasonable response and one of the ways our society is adapting to the reality of this," said Phillips. "Right now, with what's happening and even with those changes that look like they're coming out, I do feel it's safe for my kids to go to school."
Teachers and principals are 'in shock'
Teachers and principals in the territory are still grappling with the government's new strategy for monitoring COVID-19 in schools, and many were shocked to hear the news, according to Ted Hupé, president of the Yukon Association of Education Professionals.
"For two years, we've been told that we need to contain this, we need to flatten the curve, we need to monitor so that we can keep our numbers under under control as much as we can," said Hupé. "And so this abrupt change with very little warning left people in shock."
Hupé said COVID-19 outbreaks in schools are unavoidable at this point and more flexibility will be the key to ensuring students get proper education.
He's calling on the government to give principals more authority on remote learning and flexible work arrangements for teachers.
"If a principal says it looks like I'm going to have 60 per cent of my teachers out tomorrow, that principal needs to have the authority and the flexibility to act," said Hupé. "Because if they need to go to the department [of education], and they need need to hash out what the department response will be, then we'll be losing time."
Schools now have to send a request to the education department before switching to remote learning, a process Hupé says can take several days.
The department has the authority to refuse those requests, which Hupé says it has done in the past.
He hopes schools will be granted more flexibility to better serve their students depending on how many staff and students are absent.
"I'm worried about the people who are fearful and anxious, and that includes teachers and parents," said Hupé. "I think if we give the schools the tools to respond quickly, we'll be better off, and I think parents will appreciate getting timely information. And I think the teachers will feel better if they are being given some options to deal with their own anxiety and maybe their own circumstances."
Policy change in school COVID-19 reporting part of national trend
Jurisdictions across the country are shifting away from contact tracing in schools, says public health expert Rob Steiner.
Both Ontario and Quebec said they will stop logging COVID-19 cases in schools.
Steiner, who works at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, says contact tracing is no longer very useful because of how quickly the Omicron variant spreads.
"I mean you can almost think of it as like standing outside during a snowstorm looking up at a cloud and trying to figure out which cloud that snowflake came from," said Steiner. "It doesn't make that much of a difference and it's very difficult to figure out anyway."
Steiner says testing remains a valuable public health tool, but only when case numbers are lower.
He says while schools aren't completely safe, remote learning is more harmful in the long-run, and schools can be made safer by masking, good ventilation and cohorting.