Colville Lake School moves classes online for a week as COVID-19 cases rise in N.W.T.

Students in Colville Lake, N.W.T., will be learning online for the first week after they return from the break, and other schools could follow suit.

'Very possible' other schools could follow suit, says N.W.T. deputy education minister

The Colville Lake School, pictured in January 2020, is moving classes online for the first week after the Christmas break due to fears of more COVID-19 cases in the community. (John Last/CBC)

Students in Colville Lake, N.W.T., will be learning from home for a week after the Christmas break ends.

That's because of concerns that the COVID-19 case count in the community will grow, according to John MacDonald, the territory's deputy minister of Education, Culture and Employment.

MacDonald told CBC News Tuesday morning the shift to online learning is a precautionary measure for that school, but other schools could follow suit.

"As I think everybody knows, it's very possible that other education districts will take that decision as a precautionary measure," he said.

On Dec. 30, the territory announced it was extending the Christmas break until Jan. 7 for all students, and classes would be resuming on Jan. 10 instead of Jan. 5 as expected. That was so returning travellers would have a few extra days to follow public health measures.

The decision by Colville Lake's district education authority to move classes online for a week came because of the number of residents who travelled over the holidays, said Renee Closs, the superintendent of the Sahtu Divisional Education Council (DEC).

In an email, Closs confirmed the decision was a precautionary measure. Classes will be online from Jan. 10 to 14.

It affects roughly 40 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 12.

Closs said right now, the Colville Lake School is the only school within the Sahtu DEC pivoting to remote learning.

"I would suspect that if others are leaning towards this decision also, they will pass a motion before the end of the week to give parents and guardians sufficient time to make any necessary child care arrangements," she stated.

Goal of avoiding further closures

COVID-19 cases in the Northwest Territories and across Canada have been rising rapidly in recent weeks, driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

During an update Tuesday morning, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola said the territory has recorded about 200 new cases of COVID-19 since New Year's Eve. For the first time, the virus is now present in all regions of the territory.

Health officials have not released specific COVID-19 case numbers since Dec. 31. At that time, there were two cases reported in the Sahtu region.

N.W.T's Chief Public Health Officer Kami Kandola, pictured on October 21, 2020. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

MacDonald said the education department is taking its direction from the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer, but has the ultimate goal of avoiding more school closures.

"At most, I'm hopeful that we'll be in a situation where, if there are requirements in certain communities at certain times to pivot to remote learning, that we do that. As I've mentioned earlier, that's been something that the various schools have become quite adept at," MacDonald said.

Reducing the risk in schools

Masking protocols in schools could change, depending on public health advice, MacDonald said.

Up until now, cloth masks have been the go-to for most schools. Because of how transmissible the Omicron variant is, health advice is shifting toward N95 or KN95 respirators instead.

"Those types of changes will, I think, become par for the course," MacDonald said.

He said the territorial government has taken a number of steps to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools. That includes an analysis of the air circulation, and whether certain windows need to be open at certain times.

MacDonald said he also expects schools will continue to use rapid at-home tests for students as an "early warning system" against COVID-19.

With files from Loren McGinnis