N.L. aiming to have students back in class Jan. 24
Most students have been learning remotely since early January
The Newfoundland and Labrador government is aiming to get all kids back into classrooms by the end of January, and will require students, teachers, and staff to use COVID-19 rapid testing.
During a live briefing, the government said the target date for a return to in-class instruction, for students in both the English and French school districts, is Jan. 24.
The Education Department will work with Public Health to monitor risk levels and will make a final decision Wednesday.
Until then, classes will remain online next week, said Education Minister Tom Osborne.
"While I know it's not perfect, it has allowed us to minimize learning loss during these difficult times," he said.
Most students have been learning remotely since the beginning of the winter term, and Osborne said the decision is being reviewed every week.
Osborne said COVID-19 modelling from Dr. Proton Rahman and the province's health officials played a factor in the decision, which suggested the wave of Omicron cases of COVID-19 is plateauing and could ease in the coming weeks.
Rapid tests will be given to families and staff once the return date is finalized, with distribution to schools already underway, said the release. Information on how the access kits will be handed out by the schools next week once the final decision is made.
Before returning to class, all students, teachers and school staff will be required to take two tests at home, about 72 hours apart. If classes do resume on Jan. 24, tests would be taken on Jan. 21 and the morning of Jan. 24.
Each person will receive a kit of five tests, according to a fact sheet issued by the provincial government. Two tests will be used before returning to class, two will be used for testing if a person develops COVID-19 symptoms once classes resume, and a fifth swab may be used in the event of an invalid result on a previous test.
WATCH: Dr. Rosann Seviour shows how to administer a COVID-19 rapid test:
Students, staff or teachers can return to class with two negative tests, but must follow public health guidelines if they test positive. Students can return to class when symptoms improve and a negative test is provided.
Osborne said the province is already working on plans to distribute more kits when they are needed.
"We have a solid plan here, and we have room to evaluate changing circumstances. We will continue to evaluate those circumstances … and we will confirm the date for resumption of in-class instruction next week provide it is safe to do so," he said.
"Students belong in the classroom, where they can benefit from social interactions, face-to-face contact with educators, and where they have access to school resources, where they learn better."
Learning will continue for students in isolation
Osborne said the number of cases will be a factor but next week's decision will largely depend on guidance from Public Health.
"One of the factors is certainly the number of cases, but we may in fact return to school with a higher case count that what we've seen in previous times," he said. "What I can say is this province … has had less learning loss time than most jurisdictions, and I think our students in this province have done well."
Tony Stack, CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, said the plan also includes protocols for learning if a student tests positive and has to remain at home.
"It won't be the same as what is offered now in terms of virtual [learning], but there will be enough substance to it so that the child doesn't fall behind," Stack said.
Osborne said the province is working with the school districts, the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association and Memorial University's Faculty of Education to make sure enough substitute teachers are available if staff need to self-isolate.
If a student tests positive, provincial Medical Officer of Health Dr. Rosann Seviour said parents won't have to get the test verified but should assume the test is correct and consider their child a positive case.
Stack said the districts will follow the province's contact-tracing protocols, which advise people to notify their own close contacts.
Opposition weighs in
Opposition leader David Brazil said it's encouraging the province is moving toward getting students back in classrooms.
"This is needed by the students, it's needed by the parents," Brazil said. "There's a bit of work to be done … but we need to make sure we keep people as safe as possible."
Brazil called the Jan. 24 target "ambitious" but said he believes it can be done if tests are provided to families quickly.
He said his biggest concerns are with the lack of a hybrid learning alternative, especially for students who may be immunocompromised or not ready to return to the classroom.
"We feel there are options there that should be explored.… The students here want their education. In some cases it may not be in their best interest healthwise to get back in the school system under these circumstances. So options should be there," he said.
NDP Leader Jim Dinn said there isn't a long-term plan, and he's concerned about what will happen when the initial supply of rapid tests is used up.
"There's not a whole lot of confidence that there's going to be a supply available," he said.
"What about the daycare centres? Should they not be included? So I have some concerns about that."