Nfld. & Labrador

Too soon to say whether students will return to classroom in September, school board says

Newfoundland and Labrador English School District CEO Tony Stack said there are too many factors at play to make a decision yet.

Schools have been closed since March when pandemic was declared

Newfoundland and Labrador English School District CEO Tony Stack says the district is working to figure out if students can return to the classroom this fall. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

The chief executive officer of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District says the board has not yet determined whether students will return to classrooms this fall. 

"To be honest, there's still a lot of uncertainty, depending on where we are in terms of the COVID-19 restrictions come September," Tony Stack told CBC Radio's On The Go.

"We do know from the chief medical officer of health that even [Alert] Level 1 implies physical distancing in place. So we're challenged, there's no question."

Stack said Wednesday the disctrict cannot simply follow the decisions of Memorial University or the College of the North Atlantic — which both announced that in-person classes would be cancelled until at least January, with some exemptions — as education isn't one size fits all.

"It's a decision that happens in concert with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development as well," he said. "There are other entities of education, K-12 education in the province, that would have to be considered."

Schools in the province have been closed since March, shortly after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Stack said the district is working on how bringing students back into the classroom in September would work, when physical distancing measures will most likely still be in place by the fall.

They are also speaking with Chief Medical Officer of Health Janice Fitzgerald to see where schools fit into mass gatherings, which are on hold for the foreseeable future.

"In terms of mass gatherings, we're talking stadium size or putting everyone in a gym," he said. "But divided into classrooms, assuming you can achieve all of the physical distancing measures that are in place, that would be a different matter.

"If you do it as a drill and you repeat it, and you take your time, and explain the reasons why, you can do wonderful things," Stack added. "We need to ensure a healthy and safe environment for all students, families and employees. So whatever we do, we have to achieve that first and foremost."

School activities would need to be reworked

If students are going to be able to return to the classrooms in September, Stack said activities like recess, lunch and gym time will all have to be re-evaluated.

"We may not be able to have gym classes as they normally exist right now. In fact, that would be unlikely under current restrictions," he said. "Students may have to eat at their desks, ultimately. So those are the issues that are being examined.

"Obviously we want everybody back, as long as it can be done safely."

The district is working with teachers to prepare them for online teaching should schools remain closed in September. (CBC)

The district is also working on the prospect of moving classes online, whether it be a full online suite for students or time split between the classroom and online courses.

We need to ensure a healthy and safe environment for all students, families and employees.- Tony Stack 

Stack said there are a number of factors that come into play, from Internet connections around the province, the effect that part-time schooling would have on students and families, and students who may need extra help.

"I don't think we can ever replicate face-to-face instruction in a K-12 environment," he said. "That gets more and more challenging with the younger the student goes, the lower the grade… There's quite a gamut of considerations, and all of these are being prised apart in great detail."

Stack said the school board has configured about 3,000 devices in order to help students get online, with more expected by September.

He said if something were to happen on the medical front when schools reopen in the fall, these devices would be key in the transition to online courses.

The NLESD is currently working with teachers to get them suited for online teaching should it arise.

Stack would not give a date when the district will have more definitive information about the status of classes in September, saying many talks still need to happen.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On The Go

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