Nfld. & Labrador

What you need to know about going back to school amid COVID-19

Questions, and emotions, swirl as students in Newfoundland and Labrador return to the classroom starting Sept. 9. Here, we answer some of your questions and what you need to know ahead of the start of the school year.

Get answers on masks, busing, COVID-19 screening forms and more

Students will return to the classroom for the first day of school on Wednesday. (Stuart Monk/Shutterstock)

As students return to the classroom starting Wednesday, we know you still may have some questions that need answering.

We've compiled much of our back-to-school reporting to answer some of your frequently asked questions.

Q: Who has to wear masks in school?

  • Masks must be worn by all students from grades 7 to 12 where it's not possible to keep one metre of distance between classmates.

  • This includes when in communal areas of schools, such as hallways, entering classrooms and on school buses. Masks can be taken off in the classroom once students are at their desks, as long as there is one metre between themselves and other students. Masks need to be put back on when moving around and out of the classroom.
  • Students from kindergarten to Grade 6 are not required to wear masks while in the classroom, but can if they choose to do so.
  • Teachers and other school 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.
  • All students must wear a mask while riding the bus, regardless of age. Bus drivers will also be required to wear masks.

Q: Are class sizes going to be adjusted?

The short answer is no. During Wednesday's COVID-19 media briefing, Education Minister Tom Osborne said shrinking class sizes takes a lot of analysis.

While he said he understands the concern from teachers, he said it would take a lot of time and money, and that it won't be resolved before students return to classrooms.

He also said the cost does not match the risk, given the prevalence of COVID-19 in the province is extremely low.

Q: What does it mean for students to be in a cohort?

In the words of Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, "A cohort is a group of students and staff who remain together in close proximity throughout the school year and are separated from other such groups. Simply put, this year, a cohort is your child's classroom and it includes the teacher, your child and their classmates."

Fitzgerald said cohorts are aimed at keeping the number of interactions children may have within the school low, and will also apply to activities like recess and lunch periods. Teachers will move between cohorts if special instruction is needed, with certain exemptions such as gym class.

Cohorts will not apply to high school students, as they usually move between classrooms throughout the day.

Q: What is the daily COVID screening form and what should I do with it?

The form is on the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District website, and all kids and their parents have to go through the form before coming to school.

It's a series of risk-assessment questions, asking students to list any symptoms they have and if they have been in contact with someone who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

If students or staff answer yes to any of the questions on the form, they shouldn't go to school. If the answers are no, the student or staff member can come to school.

The form doesn't need to be brought in to the school each day.

Q: If a staff member or student tests positive at my child's school, will I know?

The NLESD's August plan is short on specifics as to what will happen if a positive case of COVID-19 is suspected or confirmed — but here's what we do know.

If a staff member 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. Fitzgerald said if there is a positive case within a class cohort, likely all students would have to be tested.

Q: What does the busing situation look like?

As of Sept. 3, Osborne said, the majority of students in the province will be able to ride the bus on the first day of the school year, with busing available for all students by the end of September.

Osborne said the provincial government has spent between $10 million and $11 million to acquire about 100 school buses for routes across the province. The exact number of buses is yet to be determined, as the provincial government won't know the exact number of buses needed until all students are accommodated.

Q: What about if my child isn't riding the bus? What can I do?

If your child has a different way of getting to school, medical experts say there are still things that can be done to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

If you carpool with other students, it's suggested you still wear a mask while in the vehicle. It's important to remember that you are most likely sitting with someone from outside your bubble in this situation, so protection is important. Experts also suggest driving with the windows open to improve airflow.

For those who usually walk to school, it's important to keep physical distancing in mind as you make your way to school. For those who may use a bicycle, make sure you plan a safe route.

Q: What if I only want to use online learning options?

If your child is immunocompromised, has an underlying medical condition and you feel uncomfortable with them attending in-person classes, there are measures in place to allow children to make the switch to fully online learning.

Parents will be asked to consult with their child's primary health-care provider. If they determine the child should not go to school for an extended period of time, accommodations will be provided.

On Thursday, Osborne said the provincial government is providing a minimum of 10 new teaching positions dedicated to virtual learning, for students unable to attend in-school classes.

If the situation evolves to where more students need to shift to online learning, such as if they need to quarantine, the provincial government says it's prepared to evolve its strategy with it.

Q: Will visitors be allowed to enter schools once they reopen?

According to the district, the answer is generally no. There are some exceptions, though, such as if a parent needs to attend a meeting scheduled by school administration for something like their child's personalized learning plan.

When a school visit is essential, parents will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms using the same daily form the district is using to screen students before they come to school. School administrators will be keeping a list of all visitors and their contact information.

If a parent needs to pick their child up from school, students will be escorted to the exit by a teacher before they can head off with their parent.

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