Yukon high school students are returning to full-time classes. Will N.W.T. follow suit? 

“It’s likely there won’t be any changes for the remainder of the school year,” Education Minister R.J. Simpson told CBC Wednesday. 

No, according to the chief public health office and Education Minister R.J. Simpson

Sir John Franklin High School in Yellowknife. Students there have now gone six months with part-time classes only, learning remotely the rest of the time. That's unlikely to change before the end of the school year. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Students at Sir John Franklin High School in Yellowknife have now spent six months with part-time classes. 

Principal Dean MacInnis says that's a lot better than no school at all, like what happened last year around the same time, but it's still not ideal. "The best scenario is having kids attend school all day," he said. "There's no getting around that." 

At Sir John, students in Grades 10-12 attend classes either in the mornings or afternoons, and spend the rest of the time learning remotely. That's so they can meet the stringent distancing measures set out in the Reopening NWT Schools Safely plan issued in July of 2020.

And it looks like those measures won't be relaxed anytime soon. 

"It's likely there won't be any changes for the remainder of the school year," Education Minister R.J. Simpson told CBC Wednesday. 

Masked students in the halls of Sir John Franklin high school in Yellowknife. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

On March 31, Yukon's deputy minister of education announced Whitehorse high schools, acting on advice from public health officials, would relax the distancing requirement so all students could move to full-time, in-person learning starting April 19. 

"The risks are very low, and outweigh the risks of keeping students out of school full time," said Nicole Morgan. "We know that students learn better when they are in school and they have the support of their teachers, their classmates and their friends."

That news prompted a question about N.W.T. high schools during CBC's weekly phone-in show with Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public officer of health. 

In response, Kandola said she's been meeting with the school boards and the department of Education, Culture and Employment and the answer so far is no.

She cited the third wave of cases now battering Alberta and the fact no vaccines have yet been authorized for use on children under 18. 

She went on to say the territory could open schools and accept the risk of a variant strain entering the student population, but that could mean shutting schools down later while dealing with an outbreak. 

"It really depends on what's happening in the rest of Canada due to the third wave," she said. 

Kandola also said the N.W.T. faces a "higher importation risk" than Whitehorse, prompting some to question why that would be the case. Asked to clarify, a spokesperson for her office pointed to the third wave unfolding in Alberta, noting there is a large amount of travel between the N.W.T. and that province. 

The spokesperson, Darren Campbell, also referenced new research on the safety of vaccines in children, noting it looks "promising for this age group to be safely vaccinated in the future ... and this will allow us to aim for a return to full-time, in-class instruction for all schools in the N.W.T."

St. Patrick's High School in Yellowknife was able to return to full-time classes on Jan. 28. "Certainly lifts up everyone's spirits compared to the part-time," says principal Todd Stewart. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

St. Pat's back to full-time

That's already happening at St. Patrick's High School a block away from Sir John. After turning every inch of the school into classroom space, principal Todd Stewart welcomed students back full-time on January 28. 

"What we found was that for some students, the remote time was not successful and for other students it was," Stewart said. "It certainly lifts up everyone's spirits compared to part-time."

Stewart also said attendance is up since the change, though students are still going without regular drama and sports programs. 

Minister Simpson said he's aware of the challenges part-time school has imposed on students, parents and teachers. He said four or five high schools are splitting in-class and remote learning this year. 

He's hopeful all schools will be back full-time next fall, and said there's one thing people can do now to make that even more likely. 

"I want to encourage everyone over 18 — that includes students and their parents — to go get vaccinated to ensure that we can return to school full-time in the fall."