Iqaluit school closures divided amid COVID-19 concerns

Iqaluit's only Francophone school and Nanook school in Apex, will close Monday and Tuesday, during which time the district education authorities are seeking a meeting with Nunavut education officials and the territory's chief public health officer.

Iqaluit DEA motion defeated, as other 2 smaller school boards close schools

Nanook school in Apex, Nunavut, will close Monday and Tuesday, during which time the district education authority is seeking a meeting with Nunavut education officials and the territory's chief public health officer. (Nick Murray/CBC)

Iqaluit's Francophone school board, and the Apex district education authority have decided to close their respective schools Monday and Tuesday, during which time they're seeking a meeting with Nunavut education officials and the territory's chief public health officer (CPHO).

The meeting would be to discuss the possibility of closing the schools longer.

However the Iqaluit district education authority voted down an identical motion to close its schools, also citing the desire to hear from Nunavut's CPHO.

In a rare occurrence, in which all three local district education authorities came together, the boards held an emergency meeting Sunday evening to discuss school closures over concerns of spreading the COVID-19 virus.

As of Sunday, there have not been any reported cases of the virus in Nunavut.

The three boards presented motions to their members to close their respective schools for two days, to give enough time so they can receive more information from health and education officials on the potential to close the schools longer.

The Apex district education authority, while having quorum at the emergency meeting, unanimously voted to close its only school for the two days.

The Iqaluit district education authority (IDEA), as well as the Commission scolaire francophone du Nunavut (CSFN), were each still waiting for votes from their members on the motions when the meeting adjourned. By Sunday evening, the CSFN had passed its motion, while the IDEA did not.

The moves to close come despite a request from Nunavut's department of education not to close schools on Monday, March 16.

In an email sent to several education authorities Sunday evening, obtained by CBC News, a department of education official says Nunavut's chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson "will make an announcement [Monday] regarding school closures."

"His recommendations will align with recommendations being made in other jurisdictions regarding COVID-19."

On Sunday evening, Alberta and Prince Edward Island were the latest jurisdictions to close schools province-wide, following New Brunswick and Quebec earlier in the week. Ontario also announced schools would remain closed for two weeks following its March break, and Manitoba will close schools around its break for three weeks, starting March 23.

Another memo issued on Friday by the territorial department of education advises "school closures are NOT GENERALLY RECOMMENDED [sic] for the prevention of COVID-19."

To close or not to close

The emergency meeting's discussion largely centred around the decision whether or not to close the schools for a longer period of time, and what those repercussions would be.

IDEA chair Doug Workman told the group he was worried about making a decision without first hearing from Patterson. He also worried about the impact on Grade 12 students not getting enough class hours to graduate — in line with Alberta's curriculum.

"Some of the other comments were so far we haven't had any [Nunavummiut] test positive of COVID-19," Workman told CBC News following the IDEA vote.

"I think for the conversation we were having with the majority of our board members, we're really looking toward the chief public health officer to make his recommendation. He's the doctor. He knows."

Others worried about not being proactive with school closures with a pandemic, given how it takes four to five days for a positive COVID-19 test result to come back.

"Personally, I'd rather be remembered as the guy that overreacted, than the guy that under reacted," said acting CSFN president Mathieu Parker.

Notably, Nunavut's department of education has a memorandum of understanding with the department of health, which says "only the chief public health officer has the authority to close a school due to illness."

However, education authority members at the meeting cited Nunavut's Education Act, which gives the groups the authority to "temporarily close a school for health or safety reasons."

About the Author

Nick Murray is a CBC reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He got his start with CBC in Fredericton after graduating from St. Thomas University's journalism program. He's also worked two Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickMurray91.