Nfld. & Labrador

School plans in wings as N.L. marks a COVID-free day

With less than a month left before the first day of school, parents are still waiting for specifics in the plan for bringing students back in the classroom.

With less than a month left before 1st day of school, parents still waiting on specific plan

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said Wednesday the province must consider the harms posed to children by an ongoing absence from school versus the harms presented by COVID-19. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Newfoundland and Labrador is reporting no new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, with recommendations for the upcoming school year expected to be released within the next few days, according to the province's chief medical officer.  

The province is less than a month away from beginning a new school year, and parents and teachers are raising concerns over scant details in a back-to-school plan.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said at Wednesday's COVID-19 briefing that managing the pandemic is about weighing the potential risks and harms against the benefits of the province's actions.

"We must consider the harms posed to children by an ongoing absence from school is outweighing the harms presented by COVID-19," she said.

"In these unprecedented times our school communities can provide a sense of normalcy for our children and youth, and while there will be changes in the learning environments to ensure everyone's health and safety, what will be the same will be the familiar faces to greet them and supports to help them readjust to school settings."

Parents and teachers aren't the only ones waiting on answers. The Tory Opposition, too, says timing is running out. 

"We are weeks away from schools re-opening and parents, students, and teachers, have no idea what the implications will be for them in September," Opposition leader Ches Crosbie said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.  

"How can we expect them to make arrangements or plans for the fast approaching school year when government hasn't provided clear direction to schools boards? This Liberal government continues to fail everyone." 

The province's total caseload remains 268, with 263 people having recovered and three deaths since March. 

As of Wednesday, 27,668 people have been tested for the virus, with an additional 289 in the last day. There are two active cases.

Watch the full Aug. 12 update:

Masks in schools still being discussed

Specific details about back-to-school logistics were not provided by Health Minster John Haggie or Fitzgerald — with both reiterating several times that their department offers more of a guidance role.

Haggie, who said he met with the Department of Education and the school board on Wednesday, said it's ultimately up to the Department of Education how to best operate schools.

"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, saying an announcement will be coming in the next few days. 

Fitzgerald, too, made a point of reiterating a hands-off approach to the actual nitty-gritty of what a return to classes will look like. 

"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.

One of the major issues is whether masks will be required by students, teachers or both. 

Requiring students in Newfoundland and Labrador to wear masks is still up for debate, says Fitzgerald. (Oksana Kuzmina/Adobe Stock)

Quebec recently announced students will be required to wear masks in all common areas, such as hallways, of schools — including post-secondary institutions — but will not be required to wear them in the classroom. 

Asked if Newfoundland and Labrador will be requiring masks in schools, Fitzgerald said it's still being debated. 

Haggie added the Department of Health and public health are not in a position to say how their guidelines would actually affect a specific facility or classroom setting. 

He said things can vary from one school to another.

"A small school in a very rural community will have different challenges implementing those recommendations, perhaps, than say one of the larger facilities in metro or in one of the more urban centres," he said.

"So that's why we can only provide context and advice. The detail of the plan has to come from the department concerned, and the operational elements will come from the educators on the ground." 

Shutdowns will depend on circumstances

In the event of another outbreak of COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador, Fitzgerald said closing down schools would be localized to a particular affected area, but even then the specific circumstances will be considered before a decision is made. 

"It's very difficult to make a blanket statement about that. It'll be very localized in its context. We'll have to take into account the local situation, the situation of the school, the situation in the community," she said.

"We may see a situation where we have an outbreak in some kind of facility, or workplace or whatever the case, where there may be 20 or 30 cases, but if it's well contained within that facility or within that outbreak, that may not result in us needing to consider closing down a school."

Students maintain physical distancing at a school in Quebec in May. With less than a month to go before the first day of classes in Newfoundland and Labrador, the provincial government has yet to release its specific plan for returning students to schools. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

She added: "But then, if you have fewer cases in a community and we can't find the source of those cases, then that's a little more worrisome."

Hudson & Rex production plan got 'public health's blessing'

The province's two active cases are related to the television show Hudson & Rex. The first case was confirmed Friday, and the show would say only that it was a woman involved in the filming of the series. The second active case, a man, is cast member and a close contact of the woman. 

The provincial government put out an advisory asking passengers who travelled on the woman's flight — AC690 departing Toronto for St. John's on Aug. 6 — to monitor for symptoms. 

When asked Wednesday why at least one passenger complained he wasn't contacted directly, and instead heard about the advisory on the news, Haggie suggested it's the airlines that are serving as an obstacle of sorts. 

Health Minister John Haggie says the production plan for the TV series Hudson & Rex had public health officials' blessing. (Courtesy of Shaftesbury)

"We, the provincial government and Department of Health, have had very limited success in accessing aircraft manifests for passenger details," Haggie said.

"And this has been a persistent complaint of most jurisdictions that I have had dealings with in health ministers meetings."

Haggie said when it came to the production plan for the TV series, which he said had public health's blessing, he was seemingly impressed. 

"I was suggesting that this could actually be a template for other movie business in other jurisdictions who would want to work during COVID," Haggie said.

Asked if there were any plans yet to open Newfoundland and Labrador up beyond the Atlantic bubble, Haggie said no.

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About the Author

Mike Moore

Journalist

Mike Moore is a journalist who works with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.

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