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Full return to in-person schooling in Newfoundland and Labrador to be announced Monday

An empty swing sits unused near East Point Elementary on Middleton Street in the east end of St. John’s Wednesday.

Keith Gosse/The Telegram
An empty swing sits unused near East Point Elementary on Middleton Street in the east end of St. John’s after the lockdown began. Keith Gosse/The Telegram - Keith Gosse

The plan to get students back to school remains unclear, but sources have provided The Telegram information about what could be seen when the full school re-entry program is announced Monday.

The plan is for a full return to school, as outlined in scenario one of the July 6 sketch from by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD).

Students will be cohorted upon return, meaning students will be assigned groups of students they can interact with. Students will not be able to have close contact with students in other cohorts.

Masks are still up for debate within the draft plan that was circulated on Thursday. There is the suggestion that masks will be required on school buses, but there is no set ruling for mask wearing in schools, according to the sources. There was no mandatory mask wearing in the July 6 plan. There could be a scenario where younger students are not required to wear masks, while older students are mandated.

No public assemblies or community use of schools will be held for the duration of the school year. Some students will be expected to eat lunch in their classrooms and not in common areas.

The aim of the plan will be to prevent the mass closure of schools in the event of COVID-19 outbreaks. Such closures will be handled on a school-by-school, region-by-region basis, depending on the severity of any outbreak that may arise.

NLTA president Dean Ingram says smaller class sizes need to be considered to encourage physical distancing. DAVID MAHER/THE TELEGRAM - David Maher
NLTA president Dean Ingram says smaller class sizes need to be considered to encourage physical distancing. DAVID MAHER/THE TELEGRAM - David Maher

 

Dean Ingram, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association, says the original plan was to release the school re-entry plan on Thursday, but a directive came from government to hold off on the announcement.

Ingram says his union has been given no assurances to date that class sizes will be reduced as part of the plan.

“We are certainly hopeful that the measures will include necessary measure to ensure consistency. We hope that the district has the resources,” said Ingram.

“Whatever plan the district arrives at is limited by the resourcing parameters set by government.”

Ingram says it’s important for the school district to explain why physical distancing is less of a priority in the school system, compared to other aspects of life with COVID-19.

“We do have concerns and our concerns revolve around the inconsistencies for what we see for education and how that does not align with what we see in every other public venue,” said Ingram.

“We know physical distancing is important. We’ve heard that for the past four months. People, space, time and place, that’s been echoed consistently. For some reason, the emphasis to date is that it's important, but not so much in schools. Public Health needs to explain what safety measures are in place. Public Health will need to explain to the public why there are these inconsistencies.”

Perhaps the largest question remains around school buses.

Dave Callahan is the former head of the now-defunct Newfoundland and Labrador Busing Association and represents eight bus companies in the province. He says bus drivers do not have a seat at the negotiation table and are awaiting details just like the rest of the province.

“It’s going to require more trips, is what it’s going to boil down to. If we’re going to socially distance in every facet of our life, how can we justify not applying the same rules to a school bus?” said Callahan.

“If we screw up school busing, what’s the point of all the other protocols to safeguard the kids once they’ve arrived in school if we’ve already done something foolish in getting them to school?”

He says the bus drivers he represents are more than willing to follow directions set by public health officials and the school district — but it will come at increased cost, for which bus drivers expect compensation.

Callahan estimates it could cost bus drivers an extra $100-per-trip in cleaning costs, as buses will be expected to be cleaned after every trip. Between additional trips added to get students to school, mid-day Kindergarten runs, he says buses could be sanitized four times a day.

“I won’t say I envy anyone in the NLESD or in the department. I don’t envy them and how they come up with the appropriate protocol. We would like to be involved,” he said.

“The bus industry hasn’t been involved in any of the decisions.”

All this is happening as the province is mired in a dire fiscal situation, with an over $2 billion deficit expected in the coming fiscal year.

NDP MHA Jim Dinn - David Maher
NDP MHA Jim Dinn - David Maher

 

Jim Dinn, education critic for the New Democratic Party, says no matter the cost, government needs to spend the money required to ensure a full school year.

“I understand that we have a significant financial crisis upon us, but I look at it two ways: First of all, it’s often said we need the school system up and running if we’re going to have the economy come back. To me, it’s about getting the schools open safely. Is it not worth it to invest in that?” said Dinn.

“Secondly, you want to make sure – more importantly from my point of view — you want to make sure the students, the teachers, and just as important their families are looked after safely. To me, you just can’t do it on the cheap and expect we’re going to get a really good result.”

david.maher@thetelegram.com

@DavidMaherNL

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