Nfld. & Labrador

Schools reopening as N.L. shifts into a new phase of living with COVID-19

For the first time in almost six months, students across Newfoundland and Labrador will be doing something that used to be routine: going to school. 
Kelly Dixon brought her son Logan, who is starting Grade 4, to St. George's Elementary in Conception Bay South. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

For the first time in almost six months, students across Newfoundland and Labrador are doing something that used to be routine: going to school. 

On Wednesday morning, about 63,000 students began heading back to classrooms that have been quiet since March 16, when the COVID-19 pandemic descended on Newfoundland and Labrador with full force. 

Classes — as well as public exams, school activities and outings and travel — were cancelled for the rest of the school year. 

"It's been a long six months," said Mel Crocker, a St. John's mother to two girls, heading off Wednesday morning to St. Mary's Elementary to begin Grades 1 and 3.

Excitement overruled any nervousness in Crocker's household Tuesday evening.

"Bedtime last night was hard, just because they were very excited, and we haven't been going to bed at a very responsible hour over the last several months. So last night was a bit of an adjustment," she told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

Mel Crocker and her family, including Grade 1 student Rose and Grade 3 student Ruby, are excited to get back to class Wednesday. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Schools are reopening in circumstances that are quite different from the times when they were closed. As of Tuesday, Newfoundland and Labrador has just two active cases of the novel coronavirus, and most of the public services that had been shuttered by the lockdown triggered by public health emergency orders have resumed — albeit with physical distancing and other guidelines. 

Shifting plans

While the province's back-to-school plan has shifted several times in the weeks leading up to Wednesday's reopening, Crocker said overall she is pleased with how the government and school district have been responding.

"I feel like, this is new territory for everybody. It was frustrating waiting, but at the same time I feel like, what were you going to do? It's a constantly, ever-changing situation," she said.

Deatra Walsh, the mother of Grade 4 Bishop Feild Elementary student Drew Manning, felt confusion reigned this summer.

"We really didn't know who was in charge, where the leadership was, and what was happening. And it was lacking, at the beginning. But there have been improvements over time," said Walsh.

Walsh said as announcements were made  — from new staff positions being added to more masks worn in schools — anxiety lessened, although there are some major lessons still to be learned.

"There are a lot of deficiencies in the system that existed before COVID. We needed more guidance counselors, we needed more student supports, we needed more stably funded positions, and so COVID shone a light on all of that," she said.

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District has repeatedly said that if a positive case should arise within the school system, public health authorities will be in charge of contact tracing and advising next steps. While Walsh hopes for the best, she said she will still be looking for authorities to keep everyone up to speed.

"Things will happen, and as long as we know and have a clear idea of what to do next, and parents are informed, and kids know, that's what we need to do," she said.

"What we need to do now is support the teachers, support the students, support the principals,  and we need to just do better, so we can all flourish in this new season."

Mom Deatra Walsh and her daughter Drew Manning, entering Grade 4 at Bishop Feild Elementary in St. John's, were nervous but excited for the first day. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association president Dean Ingram said he met with Education Minister Tom Osborne on Tuesday and had positive discussions about their concerns.

The teachers union is still asking the provincial government and the school district to address three major concerns: the differences in rules between schools and other public venues, masks not being mandatory for everyone, and large class sizes.

"This is not going to be a normal year," Ingram said. "I'm hopeful for the remainder of my career and beyond that we never see a year like this again."

He also pleaded with parents to be patient with teachers, as they are still working through things in strange circumstances.

The new normal

Evan Wellon, a Grade 10 student at Corner Brook Regional High, admitted it's a "weird and scary" time, but he's going to try to roll with it.

He is one of many who will have to wear a mask at certain locations in the school, but, he said, "I'm perfectly fine with it. I'm used to it. Kind of."

Specifically, masks will need to be worn by students in Grade 7 and up, inside school hallways and other public spaces, and inside classes when physical distancing of at least a metre cannot be observed. 

Parents will be asked to monitor their children's health daily, and compare their children's status with a screening questionnaire on the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District's website. If, for instance, children have two or more symptoms associated with COVID-19 (such as fever, a headache, a runny nose or nausea, among others), they should be kept home. 

School buses will be running normally on Wednesday, although the system has been tweaked. In order to limit the number of passengers on board, some students will not be eligible to ride the bus at the start of the school year. However, the government says busing will be available for all students by the end of September. The education minister said as much as $11 million will be spent acquiring as many as 100 buses across the province. 

The government is also hiring teachers to help immunocompromised children and other students who cannot attend school in person.

Emily and Nathan Walsh of Labrador City, are starting Grade 2 and kindergarten, respectively. (Submitted by Wayne Walsh)

Parents will largely not be able to come into school buildings this year. Exceptions are being made Wednesday for parents of kindergarten students, with one parent allowed at some schools to escort their child to the classroom door. 

"The idea that both parents can't go, and we can't do that, one of us has to sacrifice the first day of school," said Wayne Walsh, whose son Nathan started kindergarten in Labrador City, with his mother dropping him off.

"It's still kinda sad I don't get to see him in his desk today," said Walsh.

Otherwise, parents will be allowed into schools only for meetings that are deemed necessary, and if they meet the criteria of the screening questionnaire. 

It was a bright and sunny start for the school year for thousands of students, including Evan Wellon of Corner Brook Regional High. (Collen Connors/CBC)

Live blog

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Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

With files from the St. John's Morning Show and Colleen Connors

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