Nfld. & Labrador

Teachers voice concern with school plan, minister says mandatory masks still being debated

With the return to classrooms just around the corner, teachers called into CBC's Crosstalk to raise safety concerns with their bosses.

Information on busing expected by end of the week, says Tom Osborne

Teachers will be required to wear masks when school returns in Newfoundland and Labrador, but students — as of now — will not. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Jordan Stringer doesn't understand why nobody will be wearing a mask in his crowded classroom, but the same kids will have to wear a mask when they go into literally any other public place.

The Corner Brook Regional High teacher called into CBC's CrossTalk on Monday afternoon to voice his displeasure to his bosses — the education minister and the CEO of the province's largest school district.

"I view my workplace the same as every other workplace that's in our province right now," Stringer said. "I can't walk into any establishment without a mask so I would certainly appreciate if this basic essential requirement was in place for my workplace."

In response to his concerns, Education Minister Tom Osborne said talks are still ongoing at his department about whether masks should be mandatory in at least some classrooms.

Education Minister Tom Osborne says there are still discussions on whether to make masks mandatory in the classroom. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Osborne said he's heard from teachers and parents who have strong opinions on both sides of the issue, and noted the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, hasn't recommended masks be worn in classrooms while the province has COVID-19 under control.

"Her advice cannot be taken lightly," Osborne said.

Stringer said he had class sizes of more than 30 students before schools shut down in March. In one class of 35 kids, there were not enough desks for all students, he said — some students had to take chairs and "buddy up" at a desk with a classmate.

That won't be possible now with the recommended one metre of physical distancing between each student. Stringer said he doesn't know how it will be possible to maintain that distance, or any distance at all, without smaller class sizes or larger spaces.

Several parents called in with concerns about their children's class sizes. The mother of a child at St. Mary's Elementary in St. John's said her child is in a kindergarten class of 30, despite district policy being 20 kids per class in that grade.

She said some kids were being taught in the hallway last year to make space inside the classroom.

Newfoundland and Labrador English School District CEO Tony Stack acknowledged lots of kinks are still being worked out, but reiterated the district's plan to use larger classrooms for bigger classes where possible.

Junior high teacher Angela Dawe says there's been a lack of guidance for teachers on how to keep students distanced in classrooms. (Submitted by Angela Dawe)

Angela Dawe, a music teacher in St. John's, called in to ask Osborne and Stack if they had any advice on how to ensure kids are distanced in her classes.

Dawe said there has been no clear guidance on distancing in classrooms where it is impossible to meet current public health guidelines.

She borrowed a phrase from Health Minister John Haggie during a COVID-19 briefing in the spring to sum up the return-to-school plan.

"Hope is a girl's name. It's not a strategy," she said.

Busing answers coming soon

Osborne and Stack also fielded questions about the new busing policy.

Only 46 kids will be allowed on each bus, which could leave some kids needing a lift to school.

Stack said parents will know by the end of this week if their child will have a spot on a bus when school starts Sept. 9.

Some parents say they have already been contacted and their child has been given an assigned seat, while many others are still waiting for word from their school.

Tony Stack, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District's CEO and director of education, acknowledges there is still much work to be done to get ready for the new school year, which is nine days away. (Sherry Vivan/CBC)

Stack was also asked about what happens when kids start having regular cold and flu symptoms, or if they have to isolate for some other reasons. How will they be able to keep up with schoolwork when they have to quarantine for 14 days? 

He said there isn't a concrete plan for that yet.

"There will be contingencies that are being worked on to tend to the needs of students who have to operate completely from home for a period of time, particularly if they have to self-isolate," Stack said.

Osborne chimed in to say that province is looking at ways it can use the federal government's $26-million education grant to improve at-home learning.

"We're looking at the resources that will be required to accommodate continuance of learning or for [the] Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation — what would need to be put in place there to assist those students," he said.

With classes nine days away, Stack and Osborne made it clear there is plenty of work to do.

Stringer hoped for more stringent plans in public schools, considering the government and school district had since March to put something together.

 "Something is not meshing here," Stringer said. "How is it that safety protocols are in place for every other sector in the province but not in public schools?"

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from CrossTalk

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