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'We're telling them we're really safe. But we're not': N.W.T teachers raise alarm over return to school

Most children in the Northwest Territories will be heading back to their classrooms on Monday, but some teachers say it’s not safe to bring kids back in person right now.

YK1 superintendent 'confident' schools can reopen safely on Monday

St. Patrick's High School in Yellowknife. Most children in the N.W.T. will be heading back to their classrooms on Monday. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Most children in the Northwest Territories will be heading back to their classrooms on Monday, but some teachers believe it's not safe to bring kids back in person right now. 

One Yellowknife teacher, to whom CBC has granted anonymity for fear of reprisal, says they have been wrestling with "a mixture of fear and anger" as they get ready for next week. 

"More than anything, I want to go back to teaching in-person, in the classroom; that's why I got into this," they said. "None of us signed up to be online teachers. 

"So my resistance is not about that. It's about making sure that we're going to be going back safely."

They say teachers have been given a patchwork of pandemic-related recommendations, requirements and best practices to try and figure out on their own. 

For example, one recommendation from the territory's chief public health officer is for teachers to have all students seated in forward-facing desks. But this teacher's classroom only has tables, where students sit facing each other — and they say the district had no extra desks to offer them. 

"There are a lot of announcements being made right now about how schools are taking extra precautions and being extra-safe," they said. "And I think families need to know, we can't guarantee that. 

"We're telling them we're really safe. But we're not."

They think the territorial government and their own school district are not taking teachers' concerns seriously enough — and though they love their job, they have "absolutely" considered quitting to protect their health.

"The impression that a lot of us are getting is that [the school district] is no longer providing a pandemic response, they're providing an endemic response," they said. "Basically, 'you're all going to get it.'

"I don't want to get sick from being at work."

On Thursday, health officials said the territory was seeing about 140 new COVID-19 cases a day, and that they expected the Omicron wave to peak around the middle of next week. They said case counts were declining in many communities, though hospitalizations were rising.

Teachers' Association encourages communication

Matthew Miller, president of the N.W.T. Teachers' Association, will be sending his own children back to school next week. He says if teachers feel unsafe at work, they have options.

"If someone is feeling unsafe in the building, the first place they should be going is to their supervisor, the principal, and letting them know why they're unsafe," he said.

If a school is not meeting any of the requirements laid out by the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer (OCPHO), the Teachers' Association would also step in. 

But, he emphasized, "there is a difference between recommendations and requirements."

'If I could, I would quit today'

Another Yellowknife teacher, whom CBC has also granted anonymity for fear of reprisal, raised many of the same concerns. 

"Honestly, I do not feel like my wellbeing is important to decision-makers," they said. 

"I just think we're being put back in schools out of convenience."

With days to go before students go back into their classrooms, this teacher has been taking a hard look at their future in the profession.

"If I could, I would quit today, because I don't feel safe returning to work and I don't feel valued," they said. "I don't feel like anybody cares about my wellbeing. … And that's not to say I don't love teaching — I really do love teaching. 

"I want to have a positive influence on my students. I care about their well-being. But I just don't think this is safe."

Parents also have limited options. In a letter to parents, YK1 superintendent Cindi Vaselenak said students will be provided with learning materials if they are required to isolate, but teachers will not be providing at-home learning plans for families who choose to keep their children out of the classroom for now.

"I imagine some parents must feel the same way I do — left without a choice but to be inevitably exposed to a virus that does have long-term effects," this teacher said.

'Kids need us there:' YK1 superintendent

Vaselenak says she has been listening to teachers' concerns. But she has also been meeting with the OCPHO and looking at the data on vaccination rates and the severity of COVID-19 cases in young people, and is "confident" schools can open safely on Monday. 

Chief public health officer updates isolation, self-monitoring policies

Earlier this week, N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola offered new guidelines around COVID cases in classrooms. 

If a single student in a class tests positive for COVID-19, the OCPHO is asking everybody in that class to self-monitor for symptoms for seven days — but they will not need to isolate. 

If there is COVID-19 transmission within a class, unvaccinated children will need to isolate for a week, while vaccinated children and school staff can self-monitor without isolating for that same time period. 

If two or more cases are transmitted in a school setting, that would be declared an outbreak.

In any case where a student tests positive for COVID-19, all of their classmates will receive two rapid antigen tests.

"So much more has been put on teachers during the pandemic," she said. "I acknowledge that. I am a teacher. 

"Ultimately, getting back to in-person learning will right the ship because we know how to do that. We were trained for that. We do that well. Kids need us there."

She says medical-grade masks are available in all YK1 schools, classes will operate as bubbles, there will be daily symptom screening and schools are bringing in extra evening shifts of cleaners. 

And though going back to school in person comes with some risks, Vaselenak is particularly worried about the learning loss and mental health challenges that have come with remote learning. 

"Students are missing social interaction and learning with their peers, and I want them to experience school in the way they had anticipated," she said. "The back and forth between the two platforms has been difficult for students, parents and teachers to manage. This creates uncertainty and a lack of stability, so I believe we must learn to live with and adapt to COVID and return to school."

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