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News that N.W.T. schools could reopen this spring met with surprise

The territorial government released its plan for the gradual easing of COVID-19 restrictions on Tuesday, the first phase of which includes the possible reopening of elementary, middle and high schools.

Territorial education bodies had voted to close for the remainder of the academic year

Metro Huculak, superintendent of Yellowknife Education District No. 1, said right now, there simply isn’t the classroom space for physical distancing at some Yellowknife schools. (Donna Lee/CBC)

Some Northwest Territories regional education bodies and the teachers' association say they were shocked after Tuesday's announcement that schools would be allowed to reopen when the first set of COVID-19 restrictions may lift — which could be as early as Friday.

"It was like: 'what?'" Metro Huculak, superintendent of Yellowknife Education District No. 1, the territory's largest school board, said upon learning Tuesday that schools would be allowed to open up again this academic year. 

"We have to make sure that there's a solid plan in place if that's going to happen, and that's going to take a lot of discussion with the department, with the other superintendents, and with our admin and our staff."

On Tuesday, the territorial government released its plan for the gradual easing of COVID-19 restrictions, the first phase of which includes the possible reopening of elementary, middle and high schools. 

According to the N.W.T. government's reopening plan, schools can open under certain conditions. These include smaller classes to allow for physical distancing; no assemblies, indoor sports, music and drama classes, or extracurricular activities; staggered recesses and lunches for elementary students, and no such breaks for middle and high school students. 

Yk1 superintendent Metro Huculak, right, says a lot of discussions need to happen before schools in his district can reopen. (Marcio Di Ciccio/CBC)

The plan also calls for students over the age of two and staff to wear non-medical masks when physical distancing isn't possible, like on a school bus.

Huculak said right now, there simply isn't the classroom space for physical distancing at some Yellowknife schools.

"We only have so many classrooms, for example, some of our schools are full … so it would be very difficult," he said. "You also need the classroom space if you're going to also have much smaller classes. For example N.J. [Macpherson School] we have no classrooms at all. [At École J.H.] Sissons we have no classrooms." 

Huculak said staff have already begun moving supplies out of Sissons, which is set to be demolished this summer. 

'It came as a surprise'

Simon Cloutier, chair of the French school board Commission scolaire francophone Territoires du Nord-Ouest, also learned Tuesday of the potential for reopening schools before next September.

"The school closure was voted on by all school boards in the Northwest Territories more than six weeks ago, so no one was thinking about that possibility. So yes, it came as a surprise."

Cloutier said if schools were to reopen, he doesn't expect all parents would send their children back for the remainder of the year. This means teachers would be called on to provide classroom and online instruction. That's a lot of work to ask of teachers, he said. 

The territorial Education Department will need to address such issues before schools can reopen, said Cloutier, and with about six weeks left in the school year, if there is a desire to reopen, they'll have to act quickly.

École Allain St-Cyr is one of two French schools in the N.W.T. Simon Cloutier, chair of the Commission scolaire francophone Territoires du Nord-Ouest, also learned Tuesday that schools could reopen this academic year. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Opening is optional, says premier

"It's not mandatory, it's optional," Premier Caroline Cochrane said of reopening schools on CBC's The Trailbreaker Wednesday.

"Some schools have more equipment — they're ready, they're maybe willing to open up sooner. Other ones are looking toward using online learning." 

Cochrane said "it would be naive to think" education bodies haven't been considering the options since the pandemic flared up.

It will be up to school boards to decide whether to reopen before the fall. 

Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer, says schools won't be able to open right away. 

"I anticipate some time to prepare, some time to look at their school configuration, look at the recommendations, come up with a risk assessment plan, send that to us for approval, and once it's approved and they can implement it," she said.

"Then the schools will be ready to open, but it definitely won't be Friday."

'A day where there were 1,000 questions'

The NWT Teachers' Association, the union representing the territory's teachers, also found out Tuesday about the option for schools to reopen, said president Fraser Oliver — and the news came as a shock. 

I've received a lot of emails from our members about the stress that this is causing.- Fraser Oliver, president of the NWT Teachers' Association

"Yesterday, I would describe it as a day where there were 1,000 questions and very little answers." 

Oliver said about 10 to 15 per cent of N.W.T. teachers are currently outside the territory, as they were travelling during spring break and, following recommendations from public health officials, stayed put in the provinces. Should schools reopen, they would have to make arrangements to return and self-isolate for two weeks, leaving little time left for them to spend in the classroom before the end of the term, he said. 

Meanwhile, said Oliver, the teachers who are in the territory are just getting used teaching from home. 

"I've received a lot of emails from our members about the stress that this is causing," he said. 

Teachers are also worried about their own safety, the safety of their families, and about child care for their children if they have to go back to work, he said. 

"Let's use our energies now to continue what we're doing with respect to teaching from home and keeping the schools closed," he said, as well as on planning for September. 

Oliver said board chairs will soon meet with the Education minister and that a decision about reopening could be made in the next few days. 

Clarifications

  • In an earlier version of the story, Premier Caroline Cochrane said individual schools will decide whether to reopen. In fact school boards would make this decision.
    May 13, 2020 6:47 PM CT

With files from Mario De Ciccio and Loren McGinnis

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