Nfld. & Labrador

NLESD requiring masks in schools' communal areas and on buses

Thousands of students are being cut from busing routes to limit the number of kids aboard.

Thousands of students being cut from bus routes to limit number of kids aboard

As of Monday, the province's English school district expects all students to be back in class after Labour Day. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Mandatory masks on school buses and in parts of schools, thousands of students cut from bus routes, and limits on some school activities are just some of the changes in store as the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District unveiled its sweeping plan Monday of how education will work in the midst of COVID-19.

The school year will look very different in September, although as of Monday, the district expects to have all students back in class for instruction. If a parent wants to have their child remain at home, they will have to apply to the district in order to home-school.

"We all must recognize that things will not be exactly as they were," said Goronwy Price, the chair of the district's board of trustees, "and some people may even be inconvenienced."

Price laid out the plan and took reporters' questions Monday, as did district CEO Tony Stack and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald.

Mask use was highlighted numerous times throughout the plan. Every student in the district will be receiving a reusable cloth mask at the start of the school year. Masks will not be required when students are in their classrooms, but all students in Grade 7 and above will be wearing them in common spaces, such as hallways, in schools. Staff in those schools will also be wearing masks in those instances.

Teachers and staff will also be wearing masks when they cannot physically distance, such as when they're in offices or break rooms, moving between classes or preparing cafeteria food.

The district has ordered 80,000 masks at a cost of just over $100,000. If a student cannot wear a mask for a medical reason, they will not be required to do so. They are also allowed to wear them in classrooms, if they choose.

Tony Stack, CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, said if there are extra buses or transportation resources available the school district will explore the option of expanding operations. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Price stressed that what officials laid out Monday is subject to change, depending on COVID-19's spread.

"We are ready to pivot and adapt to what comes our way, based on the advice and direction of the provincial government and public health authorities. Students and families must be ready to adapt as well, because these are uncertain times," he said.

In an email to CBC News, a district spokesperson said the plan "reflects the direction and guidance provided through the provincial government's K-12 Education Re-entry Plan (July 6, 2020), and the most recent Newfoundland and Labrador public health guidance for K-12 schools."

Watch the live stream of the announcement here:

6,000 kids off buses

Bus drivers will also be wearing masks. In limiting bus capacity from 72 to 46 students per bus, about 6,000 students will no longer be able to ride to school.

Those 46 seats will be prioritized to children at the farthest pickup points. The rest will have to make their own arrangements to get to and from school.

Stack said getting more buses is proving difficult, as there are problems within the supply chain.

About 6,000 students will no longer be able to ride the bus, as seating is capped at 46 students per bus. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

"If there are buses, extra transportation resources out there, we'll certainly explore that, but we want to be realistic, and not increase expectation, that this is a solution that can be applied everywhere," he said.

Extra bus drivers are also hard to find, he said, and making extra bus runs are problematic when considering firm start times for schools. 

Cohorts, class changes

There are no changes to class sizes at this point.

Children in kindergarten to Grade 6 will be in their homerooms, in what the district terms "cohorts" — staying with the same group of students, in the same space — for the bulk of the school day, while some junior high students will follow suit. 

Cohorting applies to recess and lunch breaks, with those students sticking together as a group even when they move through the halls. Teachers will move between cohorts if special instruction is needed, with certain exemptions such as for gym class.

As high school students move between classes throughout the school day, cohorting will not apply.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, chief medical officer of health, said if there is a positive case of COVID-19 within a class cohort, likely all students would have to be tested. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Even inside a classroom's cohort, physical distancing will apply and contact between students discouraged, with desks spread out as much as possible. With no downsizing of student numbers, seating options will be limited, although Stack said such distancing will be done "to the best of our ability."

"If we can relocate, and match a larger class with a larger set of students, then principals will have the ability to do that, provided they have a flexible footprint in their building," he said.

The district's plan also calls for a limiting of all school gatherings, with no indoor extracurricular activities after the end of the school day, so as to allow for the increased time needed for cleaning. The exception to this is after-school child care.

Some activities can be scheduled in during lunch hours or before class, and the district is emphasizing outdoor play and instruction wherever possible. Outdoor extracurricular activities like sports can go ahead.

Music classes that are part of the curriculum are going ahead, with some public health restrictions.

Increased cleaning, ventilation challenges

There will be hand sanitizer stations throughout every school, and the district wants anyone entering a school or classroom to sanitize upon doing so.

All non-essential visitors, including parents, will be not allowed in, although there will be some flexibility, such as when a public library is housed within the building. Community group use of schools during or after hours, such as gym rentals, is off the table.

We all have a responsibility to keep our schools safe.- Dr. Janice Fitzgerald

There will also be a room designated within each building for students or staff to go to if they begin to feel ill, and where they will be required to stay until they can be picked up. That room will be stocked with a kit of personal protective equipment, including sanitizer, gloves and masks.

The district is also trying to encourage increased air flow throughout its buildings, but acknowledged that as many of them lack mechanical ventilation systems, it is a challenge.

To address that, the district's plan states for classroom windows to be opened whenever possible — even in winter. Doors will also be required to remain open as much as possible, both to increase airflow and minimize the amount of touching require to enter and exit.

If windows don't open, the district is looking at placing fans or taking other measures.

Cleaning will be boosted, both after school and during the school day. Stack said between 70 to 100 extra custodial staff are being hired to form a bigger casual pool to draw from if need be, a move previously criticized by the janitor's union, who wanted those people made permanent.

Anyone entering a school or class will be expected to sanitize their hands upon doing so. (Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium/The Associated Press)

Screening forms

The NLESD has a screening form for anyone entering the school, with a list of health questions, which the plan urges to be used on a daily basis.

Stack said the rules on how the screening tool will work have not yet been ironed out, but for the time being he hopes parents go through the list with their children each morning before school.

"Whether or not it has to be filled out and processed, that is something that we'll be discussing with our school administrators," he said.

"It's in nobody's interest to go through the form and to not be forthcoming about any risk factors that may be there." added Fitzgerald.

"We all have a responsibility to keep our schools safe, and this is a big, big part of that."

Positive case preps, price tags

While the plan is lengthy and detailed, it is short on specifics in scenarios where a case of COVID-19 is suspected or confirmed.

If a staff or student tests positive, the plan states that public health officials will work with the school "to determine what actions are taken," including who is notified. The plan also defers to public health in saying "schools should not provide notification" to staff or students' families if someone falls ill at home or at school, "unless directed to by public health."

If there is a positive case, close contacts, such as other students, will be notified via contact tracing. Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the chief medical officer of health, said if there is a positive case within a class cohort, likely all students would have to be tested.

Junior high and high school students will be expected to wear masks in communal spaces within the school, such as hallways. (Shutterstock)

There was no total price tag given for the myriad changes announced Monday. Stack said the NLESD has tried to be "prudent with the public purse," but "[if] there is a health and safety requirement, and we have to look at that, then we're going to act first and figure it out later."

In early July, the provincial government pledged $20 million to buy devices such as laptops, tablets and Mi-Fi devices for students in case in case of a return to partial or full at-home instruction .

The province's French school board confirmed that its back-to-school plan will not be released Monday, but an announcement on it will be made "shortly."

The English plan was originally set to be announced on Friday, but was seemingly delayed at the last minute by "further important updated medical health advice" from government, according to Stack. 

School is scheduled to resume for students on Sept. 9, with teachers returning a week earlier to prepare for the upcoming school year.

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