Most N.L. high school students move to online learning; K-9 back in the classroom
Tuesday, Wednesday will be transition days, K-9 instruction may not be 'robust' as teachers prepare
High school students in Newfoundland and Labrador will be moving to online learning models, while students from kindergarten to Grade 9 will return to in-class learning effective March 18, provincial officials announced Thursday.
Education Minister Tom Osborne says the changes are being made in accordance with advice from public health officials, following the change of alert levels coming into effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.
Some high schools with smaller class sizes that can accommodate a mandatory two-metre distancing rule outlined by public health guidelines will be permitted to return to in-class learning. Schools in the francophone school district with small class sizes and room for distancing will also return to in-class learning.
The move to online learning for high school students will also apply to students outside the Avalon Peninsula, where previous changes allowed for a combination of virtual and in-class learning, Osborne said.
"We've heard mostly positive feedback around online learning at the high school level," Osborne said during a briefing update Thursday afternoon.
However, there have been some challenges, Osborne said, and the department will be adding additional contracts for substitute teachers to be resources for students struggling.
There is a responsibility for people outside of a classroom setting and outside of school to limit the number of individuals that they have interaction with.- Tom Osborne
Osborne said mask-wearing will be mandatory for the full day for students in grades 4 through 9 and recommended for kindergarten to Grade 3 students where possible.
For parents who are concerned about the return of their children to in-class learning, Osborne said prior to the outbreak of the B117 variant, Newfoundland and Labrador was the "envy of the world" with low cases and transmission. He said he's confident that the same public health measures that were effective for months will continue to be.
Osborne added that research from national pediatrics groups shows the well-being of children is best served with in-class learning where possible.
Cohort model for younger grades
Staff will be required to wear three-layer masks and eye protection, Osborne said, adding that face shields have been provided, but goggles are also permitted.
With masks required all day and students in cohorts within classes — "an extended bubble, really" — Osborne said his department has "full confidence" that public health has guided them well.
"We can control what we can control, and that is the public health measures and the guidelines and requirements within the classroom setting," Osborne said.
"There is a responsibility for people outside of a classroom setting and outside of school to limit the number of individuals that they have interaction with."
Osborne said the measures will be revisited after Easter "to ensure they are still best practice."
Newfoundland and Labrador English School District CEO Tony Stack says adjustments have been made for cohorts where there was some conflict in class schedules, particularly for junior high students where the class schedule had some overlap.
Stack said the guidelines set out are for schools that can cohort; they can operate normally in a Scenario 1 model, with additional measures for mask-wearing.
Tony Stack says school bussing measures remain the same as those that have been in place during the pandemic.—@CBCMarkQuinn
For junior high-age students in a high school, like Menihek High in Labrador City, for example, only grades 10 to 12 will be online, while the younger grades will be attending normally with in-person, cohort classes under adjusted schedules, Stack said. Other than Menihek and Mealy Mountain Collegiate, all other schools in Labrador are able to return to Scenario 1, Stack said.
At Holy Spirit High, as another example, Stack said the schedule has integrated learning for classes, making cohorts not possible. That means the Grade 9 students there will be doing online learning, Stack said.
"We are following to the T the guidance … from the chief medical officer of health," Stack said.
Kim Christianson, executive director of the Conseil scolaire francophone provincial, Newfoundland and Labrador's francophone school board, said she is confident in the public health guidance and the return to in-class learning.
"Given the size of our classes, of our groups all students will be returning … to Scenario 1, and that is across the province," she said.
NLTA questions whether cohorts 'align with realities'
Dean Ingram, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Union, says questions remain.
One of those concerns targets cohorts. It's well enough to say cohorts are a fixed group of students on paper, he said, but "schools are extraordinarily dynamic places" and it's not clear if cohorts "align with realities."
"The entire return to school for K - 9 is really hinged on public health's insistence on cohorts. We have questions to the degree of which cohorts, as envisioned by public health, are actually able to be maintained in our province's schools."
Transition days next week
Tuesday and Wednesday next week will be "transition days," Stack said. K-9 teachers will be expected to continue online learning while preparing to return to in-class instruction on Thursday morning.
"I would caution that where teachers are going to be shifting, it may not be as robust as it has been," Stack said. He asked that parents be patient, "so come Thursday we are able to greet students and have them back face to face, which everybody highly values."
Stack added that the province announced a few months back that end-of-year public exams would be cancelled given the continuing pandemic, and educators also collectively decided to forgo large assessments in favour of "incremental, formative assessments." Christianson said the francophone district adopted a similar model.
With the changing of alert levels, Osborne said registered child-care service providers will be able to return to full capacity on the Avalon Peninsula.
That means these facilities will no longer be reimbursed for fees of absent children, Osborne said.
However, he added that any regulated child-care services forced to close due to contact tracing of any possible cases will continue to receive full compensation for that closure period.
Schools on the Avalon had been moved to fully virtual classrooms since the coronavirus variant B117 outbreak that started in Mount Pearl in February, which prompted the entire province to go into lockdown under Alert Level 5.
On Wednesday, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Janice Fitzgerald announced that — effective 12:01 a.m. Saturday — the Avalon region would move into Alert Level 4, while all other areas of the province will move to Alert Level 3, barring any spike in cases.
That will mean a number of changes for the public and businesses, with the reopening of a number of services permitted.