The N.W.T.'s travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic may mean teachers leave the North and don't come back in September, one MLA fears.
Lesa Semmler, who represents Inuvik Twin Lakes, worries teachers won't endure travel restrictions that complicate the act of visiting families elsewhere in Canada over the spring and summer breaks.
She is concerned the N.W.T.'s schools could be left in a precarious position come the fall.
“We know a lot of teachers in our communities leave for the summer and go back home to their families in other parts of Canada,” Semmler said in the legislature on Monday.
“Has the department [of education] started consulting with the regional school boards or surveying if we will have a large amount of vacancies in September, due to some of them not being able to travel in December and for their spring break?”
Education minister R.J. Simpson said his department was aware of the concern and planned for some degree of staff turnover each year.
“The territory always loses teachers. It’s tough to get teachers here and it’s often difficult to keep them,” he said.
“We fully expect there will be turnover, as there always is. We don’t have any hard numbers at this point about how many teachers will not be returning ... but I would assume it might be a higher number than normal.”
Simpson said the recruitment process for the next academic year had begun.
“The last thing we want to do is move toward more distance learning. Our goal is to fully staff all the schools with all the teachers and have in-person instruction,” he said.
“Our hope is that we are going to continue to be able to attract teachers to the territory.”
Jackie Jacobson, the MLA for Nunakput, said teachers in his district had hoped to be considered essential workers during the pandemic, which he said would open up access to rapid COVID-19 testing and ensure isolation centre costs are covered after travel.
“Aside from parents, they’re our kids' biggest resource for support,” Jacobson said.
“They’re asking for help right now. They need to get out. It’s been a year almost. Some of them haven’t returned home.
"They need support to get them out for the holidays and give them a little bit of a break during spring break.”
Health minister Julie Green said rapid testing already exists in every community, though it is limited.
Green said the N.W.T. Teachers' Association had not requested more access to rapid testing but that could be examined if teachers had an interest in it.
The teachers' association has, however, been in touch to enquire why teachers are not higher up the list of groups prioritized for vaccination against COVID-19.
The minister said the chief public health officer had the power to amend the list of essential workers and designate priority groups for vaccination – decisions that are based on exposure to risk.
“Fortunately for us, schools have been very healthy places. They’ve obviously been very diligent with their isolation, with their hand-washing, with their cleaning and so on,” Green said.
“Maybe they’ve done too good a job. But they have not been placed on the priority list at this time.”
In some smaller communities, all residents aged 18 or over – including teachers – have access to the vaccine.
Green said teachers are allowed to leave the territory, just like any resident, but must abide by the same rules as others.
“In terms of leaving the territory, nobody is a prisoner here. They are eligible to apply for a self-isolation plan for when they come home and isolate for 14 days," the minister said.
"If it is non-essential travel then they, like everyone else, will have to pay the cost of isolation.
“If it is essential travel ... then the government will pay their isolation costs. We do for them what we do for everyone else."
Sarah Sibley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio