Return-to-school plan 'more like a huge leap of faith,' parent says

Though many welcome the return to classroom learning, others are troubled by the lack of vaccination and masking requirements.

Excitement—and concerns—surround the province's plan for the coming school year

Shelly Dalton is worried about what may happen to Newfoundland and Labrador's schools if another COVID-19 outbreak happens. (Emma Grunwald/CBC)

While St. John's parent Shelley Dalton is relieved students are heading back to school full-time in September, she's alarmed by other aspects of the provincial government and school boards' plan.

"My major concern is that I don't see the plan as a plan, really. To me, it's more like a huge leap of faith that the pandemic is over and that things will now continue on as they did in 2019," Dalton said in an interview.

Officials announced the province's back-to-school plan Thursday, which includes distinct procedures for "low-risk" and "high-risk" scenarios of COVID-19 community transmission. If caseloads remain minimal, students in Newfoundland and Labrador will adhere to the low-risk guidelines this September—meaning that physical distancing, class cohorts and masks will not be required.

Dalton worries these low-risk guidelines won't offer enough protection against COVID-19.

"[The plan] seems to rely almost entirely on vaccinations protecting us, without even really requiring vaccination in education settings," she said. "And when I look at what's happening in other places in Canada and the United States, I'm fearful it's not going to be enough."

Dalton said she believes vaccinations should "absolutely be required" for teachers and other school staff. And while the plan encourages students to wear masks under the low-risk guidelines, she has her doubts that students will mask up if it isn't mandatory.

"I think that most of the kids absolutely will not wear the masks unless they're required. My child included will happily ditch the mask ASAP. And, you know, even if kids want to wear the masks, they may feel they're being shunned or discriminated against because they are wearing a mask," said Dalton.

Return-to-school marks 'our best days again'

Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils president Don Coombs, on the other hand, called the school reopening plan "fantastic."

"We maintained all along for the last 18 months that we wanted to see the students back in a safe environment," Coombs said in an interview for Newfoundland Morning. "And this return-to-school plan provides that to us."

The federation was included in consultations on the plan, and Coombs said the collaboration has been respectful on both sides. 

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

So far, Coombs said his organization has mainly fielded calls from excited parents—though he said "a few little tweaks" may be necessary. There's been some concern about children under 12, for instance, since they can't yet receive vaccinations.

"And you know, maybe teachers should be vaccinated," Coombs said. "And if they're not vaccinated, maybe they should be wearing masks."

Beyond these issues, though, Coombs said he has no other concerns. 

"Our best days again are starting on September the 8th," he said.

Delta variant still looms large

Trent Langdon, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association, told Newfoundland Morning he was pleased teachers had a few weeks' notice of the plan. But he remains worried about the risks of crowded, jam-packed hallways, unresolved air ventilation issues, and the hazards of opening schools to the community for extra-curricular activities.

"The delta variant is in our country. It's not like it sits south of the border or it's in a different continent," Langdon said. "It's been proven that it is highly transmissible among younger children."

Trent Langdon is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association. (CBC)

He also noted that while teachers have a proven ability to pivot at this point, switching to online learning overnight—if a high-risk situation arises—is easier said than done.

As a parent, Dalton's biggest fear about the province's back-to-school plan is that the guidelines are opening up too fast, which could result in a premature return to online learning.

If a high-risk COVID-19 transmission scenario returns, Dalton said she hopes the province will prioritise children's in-class learning over non-essential services.

"You know, last year we had a situation here in Newfoundland where bars were open full-time, restaurants were open, and our children were still at home in the dark in their bedrooms. And that should never happen. I don't know of anywhere else where that has happened other than Newfoundland," Dalton said.

"So I would like a commitment from government that children and their education … have to come first."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Henrike Wilhelm and Newfoundland Morning

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