Nfld. & Labrador

'It's at our doorstep': 15 schools in St. John's area closed due to COVID-19

The province's English school district has closed 12 schools to in-class learning in the metro region, as has the French high school and two private schools.

Teachers preparing to move to online learning, says English school district

Waterford Valley High, seen here, is one of the 15 schools in the St. John's-area where students will be staying home and preparations begun to switch to online learning. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Thousands of students in 15 schools across the St. John's area, in English and French school districts as well as private schools, are staying home Tuesday and Wednesday as in-person classes have been suspended due to a spate of new COVID-19 cases.

The closure will last "at least two days," the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District said in a statement released late Monday night, a closure directed by public health as it conducts contact tracing through metro-area school populations.

"There's been a number of interactions through sporting events, such as hockey and volleyball, where that contact tracing is extending. So [it's] just a prudent measure while public health are assessing things, to slow things down, be cautious," said district CEO Tony Stack on Tuesday morning.

The contact tracing effort stems from Mount Pearl Senior High, which was closed indefinitely effective Monday after two students there tested positive for the virus over the weekend

With 11 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the province Monday, and an additional 30 cases confirmed Tuesday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said there are a "significant number of contacts" associated with the Mount Pearl school cluster, as well as sports teams.

The number of cases and confirmed community transmission prompted Fitzgerald to bring in a two-week "circuit breaker," bringing in a modified special measures order closing a number of businesses, effective midnight Tuesday.

Tuesday's suspension affects 12 English schools that serve grades 7 through 12 — with a total enrolment of more than 7,100 students — as well as École Rocher-du-Nord in the French district. Two St. John's private schools also announced closures: St. Bonaventure's said it will close for the rest of the week, affecting its entire student body from kindergarten to Grade 12, and Lakecrest Independent School said it was closed for at least Tuesday.

Stack said he recognized his district's closure doesn't account for siblings at other schools, and urged all students, regardless of grade, to keep contacts low in what he called an "evolving situation."

"It's at our doorstep now, in some form and fashion. And if we all pull together, do what's right, follow public health guidance, we can push this back," Stack told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

The NLESD has suspended all extracurricular and co-curricular activities in all St. John's area schools still open.

Online learning preparations start

While the NLESD said in its statement there would be more clarity provided Tuesday, it's unclear even to Stack when the thousands of students now at home will return to class.

"We don't know if it's going to go beyond the two days," he said.

"Right now we'll take our cue again from public health, but there's a possibility that could occur so we should get our heads around pivoting to the online learning situation."

To that end, all teachers and staff at the affected NLESD schools — minus those at Mount Pearl Senior — reported to school Tuesday to begin such a switch. Over the course of the day, Stack said, teachers will be making sure all students are able to connect. 

Tony Stack, the CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, says it's not known yet if schools will be closed longer than two days. (Sherry Vivan/CBC)

What online learning would look like will differ from school to school, he said, but all students would hew closely to normal school hours and periods, although that doesn't mean a lengthy slog of screen time, with independent and group work factored in.

"This does not mean that there's 300 minutes a day face-to-face time on a computer virtually with a teacher," Stack said.

While the district never received all its desired Chromebooks to facilitate online learning due to worldwide shortages — Stack said a large shipment of them is expected in a few weeks — almost all students have been set up with devices, or are on a list to be sent one.

'It's very stressful'

Don Coombs, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils, said he's been hearing from some of the tens of thousands of parents his association represents that they're worried.

"Nobody goes out to try to get the COVID — I think we have to understand that.… Nobody tries to spread it. Very often it could be certainly innocent enough and we can't stigmatize anybody with the illness," Coombs said.

"It's nobody's fault, but as Dr. Fitzgerald said yesterday, COVID is everywhere, and that's the way we have to look at it."

Don Coombs is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils, which represents 254 schools in the province and as many as 60,000 parents and guardians of students at those schools. (CBC)

He's heard stories of parents who have two sick teens at home awaiting tests, in a house where their elderly grandfather also lives.

"They're very concerned. It's very stressful," Coombs said. But, he added, there have been alternate plans in place since last year to allow for learning to continue.

Ahead of Tuesday's update, Coombs said he expected the COVID-19 situation to get worse before it gets better.

"I'm fearful for today.… I just don't think it's gonna be a good day today, and whatever the decision is made by Dr. Fitzgerald and the English school district, we want our students in a healthy, safe environment," Coombs said.

"And if that has to be through virtual learning, that's the way it has to be right now."

'We've taken our guard down'

As families woke Tuesday morning to the news of the change, people in the Mount Pearl Senior High community have had a few more hours to process the swift turn of events.

"My son plays hockey, so we knew something was up when of course hockey got cancelled on Sunday. So soon as that happened, we figured that there were things in motion that would probably change things for the next little while," said Brian Power, whose son is in Grade 12 at Mount Pearl Senior High.

Power's son is among the 930-odd students, along with all staff, who have been ordered to isolate away from their families and await COVID-19 testing. Power and his wife both work from home and have another son, but he said they're fortunate to have space to accommodate their isolated teen.

"He's up in his room, he's got his PlayStation, he's still doing some studying, things like that, and he's got his own bathroom that he can use," Power said. "For now, he's keeping clear of everybody."

Mount Pearl Senior High students and staff are all in self-isolation, awaiting testing after two students tested positive for COVID-19. (CBC)

As public health continues its investigation into the new cases of COVID-19 in the metro area, other education-related closures are popping up.

A staff member with the tutoring and after-school program THE Creative Learning has tested positive, and the company has suspended all its services until further notice. On Facebook, its director said the positive case affects its after-school program at St. Peter's, an elementary school in Mount Pearl, and health officials will be in touch with affected families. Its director declined an interview with CBC News.

The realization of community spread within the St. John's area has had Power contemplate a sense of complacency.

"We've been fortunate numbers have been low, and I think, we've taken our guard down," he said, adding that applies to the province at large as well as his own family to some degree.

"I think the biggest thing is, you know, we've gotta stay vigilant, and you know, try to limit the amount of interaction that we have," he said.

In its release, the NLESD asked students at other schools now at home to "limit their contacts to their households," and not call 811, as there is more information to come from public health on Tuesday. 

All schools in the St. John's area were closed Monday due to the winter storm, so the last day any students in the affected schools were in class was Friday.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show and Cec Haire

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