Updated to show information on school re-opening plans now not expected to early next week
Parents desperate for guidance on what school reopenings will look like will probably know by early next week.
Health Minister Dr. John Haggie told reporters Wednesday that school boards will roll out details “in the next few days.” But he and Chief Medical Officer of Heath Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said they’ve offered their guidance on pandemic measures and are no longer involved in the process.
”We in Health and Public Health are not educators,” Haggie said at the weekly COVID-19 briefing Wednesday. “We are not in a position to say how our guidelines or our recommendations would actually impact a specific classroom setting or a specific facility.”
"We must consider that the harm posed to children by an ongoing absence from school is outweighing the harm presented by COVID-19. In these unprecedented times, our school communities can provide a sense of normalcy for our children and youth." — Dr. Janice Fitzgerald
Nonetheless, both officials offered an overall rationale for how schools should open, and what situations might trigger a reversal of plans.
“Managing this pandemic has always been about weighing potential risks and harms against the benefits of our actions,” Fitzgerald said in her opening remarks. “And right now in our province, we must consider that the harm posed to children by an ongoing absence from school is outweighing the harm presented by COVID-19. In these unprecedented times, our school communities can provide a sense of normalcy for our children and youth, and while there will be changes in the learning environments to ensure everyone’s health and safety, what will be the same will be the familiar faces to greet them and supports to help them readjust to school settings.”
Fitzgerald said it’s important for parents to address uncertainties their children may feel about going back to school.
“Open communication between parents and children is important,” she said. “Ask your child what is on their mind and problem-solve together. As we all continue to adjust to the new normal over the next month, take opportunities as they arise to model good behaviours and public health practices for your children.”
Asked about jurisdictions outside the province such as the United States, where school openings have resulted in more viral spread, Haggie said that’s not likely here.
“I think a safe school or a school at low risk of getting COVID in its students stems from the behaviour of the community in which that school is situated,” he said.
So, what would trigger a decision to close schools again?
“Our goal is not to have to go back to a lockdown,” said Fitzgerald.
“Our goal is to continue to move forward and to be able to manage cases and clusters as they occur. It’s very difficult to make a blanket statement about that because it will be very localized in its context and we’ll have to take into account the local situation and the situation of the school, the situation in the community.”
She said even 20 or 30 new cases may only mean localized precautions if all contacts have been traced and contained.
“But then if you have fewer cases in a community, and we can’t find the source of those cases, then that’s a little more worrisome,” she said. “It’s very difficult to give a hard and fast rule and to say a specific number.”
Haggie and Fitzgerald also answered questions Wednesday about the case of an actor for the TV show “Hudson and Rex” who tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 upon arriving and went immediately into isolation. A close contact of hers also tested positive. They are the only two active cases in the province.
The test was done privately as part of the production company’s commitment to preventing the spread of COVID-19, but Fitzgerald said she still sees no reason to test all passengers arriving in the province.
“To use one case to make a decision is not necessarily the best way forward,” she said.
Haggie added that demanding all passengers go into 14-day isolation has already proven the most effective measure, in this province and elsewhere. “That is the true screening test for COVID-19.”
Kudos to media
Haggie ended Wednesday’s briefing with a tip of the hat to the province’s media, especially those who’ve been covering the hour-long briefings since March.
He said both the department and the media have played a crucial role in informing the public.
“We have acted and they have acted as a great source of reliable, trustworthy information in a time of great uncertainty and I would really like to just take this opportunity to thank all of them who sat through these hour-long briefings,” he said.
“I’d just like to round out this week’s briefing with a very clear thank-you from the Department of Health and myself for the role that the mainstream media has played in managing COVID-19 and letting the people of Newfoundland and Labrador be very well served.”
In other developments Wednesday:
• The Health minister said the province will be making an announcement soon on its plans for a new contact-tracing app already in use in other parts of Canada.
Peter Jackson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering health care for The Telegram.