Nfld. & Labrador

Back-to-school plan delayed, as school board 'anxiously' waits on government for health details

A plan expected to detail how students can safely return to K-12 classrooms has been delayed, says the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District in a letter to principals.

NLESD CEO says delay is necessary while new details are forthcoming

It's unclear what specific health information has delayed the release of Newfoundland and Labrador's draft back-to-school plan, which was expected to be released Thursday. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Students, parents, and teachers who have all been waiting for a detailed back-to-school plan will have to wait even longer, after a seemingly last-minute instruction from the provincial government that additional public health details will impact or change the plan. 

That's according to a letter that Tony Stack, CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, sent Wednesday evening to principals and assistant principals. 

"The provincial government advised us today that there is further important updated medical health advice that potentially will have implications for our plan," writes Stack in the letter, a copy of which has been obtained by CBC News. 

"We have agreed to the government's request to reschedule the release to early next week to ensure the plan includes the most recent information available to us."

For most students in the public school system, classes are scheduled to start Sept. 9. 

Teachers have been ordered back to work a week earlier, on Sept. 2.

Stack said he "sincerely regrets this delay" when it comes to the plan, noting "everyone in our school communities are anxiously awaiting."

In an emailed statement on Thursday to CBC, the district said it is "awaiting some information/clarification from public health officials."

When CBC News contacted the provincial Health Department to ask what had changed since Wednesday, including what "updated medical advice" was being discussed, a spokesperson for the department suggested the reporter rewatch Wednesday's COVID-19 briefing. CBC again asked the question, but has yet to get a response. 

School starts in less than 4 weeks

It's not immediately clear what has transpired this week with education and health officials, in terms of any updated health information that would affect the plan.

Parents, teachers and others have been waiting on details that should provide clarity on a number of issues, including:

  • Class sizes.
  • How to physically distance students in classrooms that have up to 30 kids in them.
  • How busing will work.
  • Whether cafeterias will be open.
  • Whether band and choir — which had previously been ruled a no go — can resume. 
An memo to principals from the CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District said he 'sincerely regrets the delay,' but that the government advised the board Wednesday there is 'updated medical advice.' (CBC)

Perhaps the biggest issue up in the air is masks, and whether, when and where students, teachers and other staff will be required to wear them. 

This week, Quebec said all students in Grade 5 and up will have to wear a mask almost everywhere inside, unless they're seated at their desks.

Dr Janice Fitzgerald, the province's chief medical officer of health, said Wednesday the issue is still being discussed. 

The date of the resumption of school is, and always has been, a fixed one — the Wednesday after Labour Day.

'What's holding us up?'

Opposition leader Ches Crosbie said he doesn't know what sort of updated health advice would put the release of the plan on ice. 

"No idea. If it's something dramatic, they should be sharing it with us," he told CBC News on Thursday.

"It's worrisome, isn't it? They've had all summer, they've had in fact since before the summer … so we have had lots of time. What's holding us up?"

PC Leader Ches Crosbie says it's 'worrisome' that the release of the back-to-school plan was seemingly delayed at the last minute. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Crosbie is laying some of the blame on the transition between Dwight Ball existing as premier, and Andrew Furey coming into the role.

"If you're the minister of education and you want to get the final word from the boss, there is no boss to get it from," Crosbie said. 

Dean Ingram, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association, also wondered what caused the delay. 

He defended the English and French school boards, saying they were put in a "compromising position" because they are bound by the parameters put in place by the provincial government.

Some school boards across the country have mused about spacing or reassigning lockers to help physically distance students. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Ingram said he and his members still have many questions about class sizes, sanitizing spaces and screening methods for COVID-19. 

"We are hopeful that we will see is a plan that's released that reflects more stringent guidelines than what we've seen to date," he said. 

Not our plan, say Haggie and Fitzgerald

Education was the focus of Wednesday's weekly COVID-19 briefing.

Reporters asked Health Minister John Haggie and Fitzgerald repeatedly about the plan, but both Haggie and Fitzgerald were pointed in several of their responses, stressing that they offer guidance only.

They reiterated that decisions rest with the Department of Education's plan and the NLESD.

Health Minister John Haggie and Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, pictured here in March, said Wednesday that they offer guidance only, and the school plan is the responsibility of the Education Department and the English school district. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

"We have done our best to provide health-care support. At the end of the day, this is their plan and they, through the school district, will be operationalizing that," Haggie said.

Fitzgerald also echoed Haggie's response.

"As I've always said, our job is to provide guidance, but we're not able to operationalize all of that in areas that certainly are not our area of expertise," said Fitzgerald.

School plans in flux across Canada

Newfoundland and Labrador has two active cases of COVID-19. Since June 1, the highest number of active cases at any one time has been four. 

Other provinces are also grappling with details and moving targets, when it comes to back-to-school plans, though those are places where the number of COVID-19 cases fluctuate by up to dozens daily. 

Ontario has a $309-million back-to-school plan that includes millions to hire up to 500 school-focused public health nurses. But, so far, no nurses have been hired, and government has put a "call out" to nurses who may be interested. Class sizes, at this time, will remain the same — a move that has drawn sharp criticism from parents and teachers' unions. 

One of the largest school boards in that province, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, says high school students will be divided into two cohorts that will alternate between two and three "days" a week of in-class learning. But those days run from 9 a.m. until 11:30 a.m.

Just one day ago, Alberta's province's chief medical officer of health said she would like to see the 90,000 teachers and school staff be voluntarily tested for COVID-19 before the start of the school year, and also regularly throughout the year.

British Columbia also said Wednesday it will push back its date for kids to return to school. Teachers and other staff will return Sept. 8, but the date for students remains up in the air. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Meg Roberts

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