Thousands of Newfoundland and Labrador grade-school students, teachers and staff picked up rapid testing kits Wednesday, in preparation for a possible return to the classroom next week.
They're all required to take two rapid tests 72 hours apart before the return to school, which is tentatively scheduled for Monday.
The final decision, though, is coming at a media briefing at 2 p.m. on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Newfoundland and Labrador English School District CEO Tony Stack said the province's more than 250 schools are distributing about 375,000 kits to almost 75,000 people.
"Now that the decision has been made to distribute in anticipation of a possible return to school next week, we're in a good place," he said.
He said about 50 per cent of the rollout was expected to be done by Wednesday, with some larger schools taking longer.
Each kit will contain five tests; two will need to be taken before returning to school and two should be saved in case symptoms develop while school is in session. The final test should be reserved in case there is an inconclusive test result.
He acknowledged the system isn't perfect — substitute teachers, for instance, often don't know if they're working until the day of. In those cases, staff can take the test before they come in, said Stack.
He said the district is looking at contingency plans in case of staff shortages, including employing Memorial University Faculty of Education student teachers already cleared for classroom support.
"There will be challenges that will occur," he said. "But we have relied on our administrators who've adjusted before. They'll do so again, and we'll look at every opportunity to make a creative solution around maintaining classroom instruction."
Stack said there will be online options for students who are immunocompromised or who test positive for COVID-19 and have to isolate, but they won't be the same as the online classes students have been taking so far in January.
"We just do not have the staff volume to be able to do both the face-to-face instruction and full-up virtual learning at the same time."
Deferring to public health
Ahead of Thursday's decision on a return to class, Education Minister Tom Osborne said public health is still working on the situation.
"They gauge all of the risk levels and ultimately provide the guidance on whether or not schools are open for in-class learning or whether we're doing virtual learning," he said.
Osborne said the tests are not meant as a catch-all approach, but rather as another tool along with masks and ventilation to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the province's schools.
"It allows ... students and educators to know prior to going into the classroom whether or not ... they're safe to do so," he said.
The return to class comes as the highly-infectious Omicron variant has led to record case numbers and hospitalizations in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Osborne said he's heard from families both in favour and against a return to in-person class; he said he understands both sides, but believes it's important for students to get back in class when possible.
"I know that public health, when they give us the guidance as to whether or not school is open for in-class learning or students stay online learning, are weighing all of the risks."
Lessons from student assistants: NAPE
Though classes have been online so far this year, schools have not been empty.
Some students with exceptionalities have remained in the physical school environment, and the student assistants who help them attend school and adjust to the school environment have remained in the classroom, too.
"It took a real collaborative effort amongst all those involved," said Jerry Earle, the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees which represents student assistants in the province.
Earle said working in the classroom has been "very concerning" for student assistants who often work in very close contact with children. Still, he said the NLESD and the Department of Education have taken the safety concerns of student assistants seriously.
"We've actually had direct conversations with them, saying the health and safety of the students and the staff — inclusive of student assistants — are paramount," he said.
"The public health advice with respect to individuals working with vulnerable K-12 children has not changed at this time," said NLESD spokesperson Cheryl Gullage in an email. "That said, all district staff members have adjusted and adapted as necessary to align with updated public health guidance since the pandemic began, and we will continue to do so if that is required."
Gullage said employees who test positive for COVID-19 can avail of sick leave, and therefore the district could not be certain how many student assistants have contracted the virus, but she did say less than 25 are currently self-isolating.
Earle said there are lessons to be learned from the experiences of student assistants who have worked in schools this month, and he emphasized the need to ensure staff have the correct personal protective equipment.
"Those on the frontline: student assistants, school bus drivers, school secretaries, teachers can tell us a lot of things that we need to know to ensure the safety of the children and of those providing that education."