Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. students, teachers returning to the classroom Tuesday

The decision to return to in-class instruction comes as the province reports 364 new cases of COVID-19, along with 764 recoveries, leaving 2,801 known active cases. Two new deaths were also reported, raising the province's total to 30, including 11 this month alone.

2 new COVID-19 deaths reported, raising total to 30

Premier Andrew Furey announced Thursday that students, teachers and staff will return to the classroom on Tuesday. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Students, teachers and school staff in Newfoundland and Labrador will return to the classroom next week.

Premier Andrew Furey announced Thursday afternoon the province will return to in-class instruction on Tuesday, saying it's the right decision for students.

But Furey also said the plan is fluid and will be changed if necessary.

"Our children deserve our best effort, and I'm confident that the hard working women and men in our schools, the teachers and support staff alike, will deliver, as they have throughout the pandemic," he said.

Furey said the decision was made possible in part because the province has the highest vaccination rate in Canada in children ages five to 11. A total of 75 per cent of children in that age group are partially vaccinated, with second doses beginning Thursday. The province expects most children will be fully vaccinated in about six weeks.

The provincial government's plan for returning to in-class instruction includes providing all students and school staff five rapid COVID-19 tests. Students and staff must take two tests 72 hours apart: one three days before classroom instruction resumes and a second on the morning of the first day back in schools. Students can return to class if both tests are negative. Schools began distributing tests Wednesday.

Rapid tests will also be handed out to staff and children ages two to five in regulated child care centres, officials said.

The province reported that two more people have died as a result of COVID-19 since Wednesday. There have now been 30 COVID-19-related deaths in the province since the pandemic began, 11 of them in January alone.

Watch the full briefing here:

Twenty people are now in hospital as a result of COVID-19 — the highest total since the pandemic hit the province, up two since Wednesday — and Health Minister John Haggie said the overall number of positive cases in hospitals is also growing.

During the briefing, Haggie said there are 55 people in the province's hospital who have COVID-19, a number the Health Department later updated to 60. Of that number, 20 are people who were hospitalized because of COVID-19, as opposed to someone being hospitalized for another reason, such as a broken hip, and testing positive for COVID-19.

The province is reporting 364 new cases Thursday, along with 764 recoveries, for a total of 2,801 known active cases.

Since Wednesday, 1,462 tests have been completed in the past day, for a test positivity rate of 25 per cent — among the highest rates the province has seen for a day's worth of testing. A total of 462,544 tests have been completed since March 2020.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said the decision to return to in-class instruction was made while considering the well-being of students, who often learn better in schools or use the school area as a safe space.

"We cannot let fear guide our decisions," Fitzgerald said.

"We have always relied on evidence to guide the way.… At this time, the benefits of being in school for children outweigh the risks of COVID-19."

Students will be required to wear masks at all times indoors during the school day, except when eating or doing vigorous physical activity. A three-layered mask is recommended, but students can wear more than one mask to substitute if they'd like to do so.

If cases do rise after schools reopen, Fitzgerald said, the province would likely consider in-person alternatives before shifting to online learning. Education Minister Tom Osborne said online learning is less than ideal for everyone.

In a statement after the announcement, the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association said the return to the classroom is "too much, too soon."

"We simply do not feel it is safe or sustainable to do so now, in our current COVID-19 context," said Trent Langdon in the release. "There are critical questions and issues that still require clarity, such as risk assessment and PPE protocols, restrictions on non-essential school access for voluntary and community activities, etc."

PC Education Critic Barry Petten, left, and NDP Leader Jim Dinn said they still have concerns over the province's return to school plan. (CBC)

PC MHA and education critic Barry Petten said with daily new case counts still in the hundreds, he would have liked to see the return delayed another week.

"We're not really out of the woods. A week can make a big difference in this pandemic and the numbers and give parents a bit more comfort because that's ultimately where we're getting a lot of concern from," he said.

NDP Leader Jim Dinn said the Liberal government should do more.

"Do I think that government can do more? Yes, If I'm being totally honest," added NDP Leader Jim Dinn.

"Am I confident with the plan? Not really. Based on the feedback I've got from parents and teachers alike, a significant number of people do not have confidence in the approach … in the measures that government has got in place."

Isolation changes

Fitzgerald also introduced a series of changes to isolation timelines Thursday.

Effective Monday, anyone who lives in the same home as a person with COVID-19 is considered high risk, whether the person is isolating themselves from family members or not. Non-household contacts of the case are designated moderate risk, and will have different isolation guidelines depending on their risk category and vaccination status.

If a student is partially vaccinated and a non-household contact tests positive for COVID-19, the child can continue going to school as long as they don't have symptoms but for 10 days they can't go anywhere else.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald says the benefits for children of being in school outweigh the risks of COVID-19. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

"Given the school-based precautions in place, such as masking and cohorts and because the child has no symptoms, the risk of transmission is lower and therefore the child can return to school," Fitzgerald said.

If a household member of a student tests positive, the student must stay in isolation for 10 days.

If a student tests positive, they must notify their own contacts. Only close contacts, such as friends a student spends time with after school, will have to self-isolate. People who come in contact with a positive case only at school will not have to self-isolate, as the chances of transmission are lower with protection in place, said Fitzgerald.

Fully vaccinated and asymptomatic adults who have had contact with a positive COVID-19 case outside their household can go to work or school, but nowhere else, for seven days. If a household contact tests positive, other people in the house must isolate themselves fully — not going to work or school — for seven days.

Isolation rules are also changing for travellers entering Newfoundland and Labrador. Effective Friday, anyone who enters the province will still receive five rapid tests to use daily for five days, but fully vaccinated travellers can leave isolation after two days. The remaining three tests must still be used on the following three days.

The province is scheduled to receive about 1.3 million rapid tests from the federal government in February, according to Haggie.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Henrike Wilhelm

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