P.E.I. school officials expect rise in health-related absences

With the start of the school year a little over three weeks away, the top official with P.E.I.'s Public Schools Branch says he’s feeling confident in his department's work and preparedness.

'People will be extra diligent and they should be'

Acting director of the Public Schools Branch Norbert Carpenter says parents are expected to screen their children at home and keep them home if they are sick. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

With the Sept. 8 start of the school year a little over three weeks away, officials with the Public Schools Branch in the province says they're feeling confident in their level of preparedness.

This comes after the individual plans for all 56 English schools in the province were posted online Friday. Schools under the French Language School Board are expected to have plans released Monday.

Speaking with CBC Radio: Island Morning, acting director Norbert Carpenter told host Mitch Cormier that the branch is not feeling more nervous than any other year. 

"We still feel confident with our work with the [Chief Public Health Office]," he said.

"Prince Edward Island is a bit of an exception and we are still in good stead as we head into September."

So far, the Island has seen no sign of COVID-19 spreading through the community. The only active cases are among essential workers who have been isolated since their arrival on July 30. 

Health-related absences to rise

Despite the low number of cases, Carpenter said the branch expects to see an increase in virtual or distance learning requests for the year. 

"We'll deal with those one at a time," he said, adding that positions have been added to deal with students who are immunocompromised or who have a medical practitioner deem that school may not be the best plan for them.

"Check in with their medical practitioner, and if it [is] agreed that it would be a risk for that student to come to school, we will set up a plan."

In our culture many times we've gone to work, we've gone to school and we haven't been feeling well, but we just can't be doing that.— Norbert Carpenter, Public Schools Branch acting director

Carpenter also said the branch expects to see absentee rates in schools go up as cold and flu season nears.

"People will be extra diligent and they should be, so I guess we can wait and see what happens there."

Parents are expected to pre-screen their children before sending them to school, while also using their discretion to recognize things like allergies. 

"Is a runny nose the norm for your child? And if it is and they have no other symptoms, that child is fine. But again, it's parent's discretion," he said.

"If they do a checklist with their child and the child is really not feeling well, then they shouldn't be at school. Same with an adult. I think in our culture, many times we've gone to work, we've gone to school and we haven't been feeling well, but we just can't be doing that."

Cohorts varying among schools

Included in the plans released Friday are details of how the cohorts will move through school buildings, with the size of the cohorts varying for each school. 

Some schools like Charlottetown Rural and Colonel Gray will have cohorts including fewer than 30 students, while other schools like Elm Street Elementary could see cohorts as large as 49.

Carpenter said this is because every school is different in its layout. 

"When you look at a cohort as 49, you may say that's too large," he said. "It isn't, because right now in the public, we know cohorts -- if you want to call them that -- are 50 for public gatherings. 

Mobile classrooms, like the one at West Royalty Elementary, have been added to some schools to allow for spacing and movement of cohorts. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

Carpenter says larger cohorts may be more safe in a school like Elm Street. 

"That might mean two homerooms are next to each other and they're going to travel through the same doors and to the same hallway and things of that nature," he said. 

"It makes sense sometimes to group two classes together, whereas at high schools, it makes much more sense to have homerooms as cohorts."

'When there is a positive case'

Carpenter also said that it's possible entire cohorts would have to self-isolate when a single student tested positive for COVID-19.

Carpenter told Island Morning that while plans to resume school sports have not been finalized, the branch hopes to have plans in place for resumption at a future date after schools go back Sept. 8. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

"Public health nursing and public health will take over at the school level when there is a positive case, do contact tracing, and that's why our attendance will be tracked very closely," he said. 

"The cohorts need to be maintained so the contact tracing can unfold as quickly and as orderly as possible."

Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam and deputy public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo also presented new information Friday: modelling on the coronavirus numbers. The two flagged a potential surge in cases several times worse than what has been seen so far in Canada.

Carpenter said he believes Prince Edward Island could shut down schools much more quickly this time if needed.

"We have a lot of the legwork done previously, so that work wasn't wasted for sure, and we will be able to react more quickly this time if we do need to change plans," he said.

Despite that, he stressed, "Prince Edward Island has no evidence of community spread at this point, so we have an opportunity to have students in classrooms."

Carpenter added: "We also know, as educators, education is the great equalizer. We want all our students back in school."

More from CBC P.E.I.



  • An earlier version of this story said Norbert Carpenter expects to see an increase in homeschooling requests this year. He was talking about requests for at-home accommodation of children for health reasons, which is a different kind of learning from homeschooling.
    Aug 17, 2020 2:29 PM AT

With files from Island Morning


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?