Top N.L. doctor preaches calm before return to in-class learning next week
By Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief medical officer of health had a message Thursday, Jan. 20, for parents and school staff in the province who are worried about schools returning to in-class learning next week.
In a nutshell: deal with it.
“My most important message today is that we can’t let fear guide our decisions,” Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said.
The province will open schools to students one day later than planned, on Tuesday, Jan. 25, to allow teachers and staff to prepare.
Every child is required to undergo two rapid tests before classes begin — although no proof of results is required — and new protocols will see more people isolating at home while still being allowed to go to school or work.
In a news conference, Fitzgerald and Premier Andrew Furey said they understand the diversity of opinions, but both leaned heavily on advice offered by the Canadian Pediatric Society that children’s social and mental well-being is greatly diminished when forced to learn online.
“I feel that my kids, your kids, all of our kids are losing something valuable every single day,” Furey said, addressing parents. “It’s a cruel robbery of experience, of building friendships and coming into who they are, who they want to be.”
Furey said 97 per cent of students are back in school across the country, and this province is further ahead on child vaccinations and boosters for adults.
Fitzgerald said it will be at least six weeks before most children age 5-11 are fully vaccinated.
“Six weeks is too long for us to continue with the suspension of in-person learning,” she said.
Fitzgerald also announced complicated new self-isolation rules that essentially removed the need for non-symptomatic classmates to isolate and placed stricter guidelines on household contacts.
Starting Monday, Jan. 24, anyone in the same household as someone with COVID-19 is considered high-risk regardless of whether that person is isolating from the others or not.
If a school-age child is fully vaccinated and is a non-household contact without symptoms — such as another classmate — they can return to school, but must isolate when not in school for 10 days.
Any unvaccinated child who is in the same household as someone with COVID-19 must isolate, period.
For adults, anyone fully vaccinated who is a non-household contact of someone with COVID-19 can return to work or school, but must isolate outside of work or school for seven days. That won’t apply if the person works with vulnerable people or in other high-risk situations.
An adult in a household with a case of COVID-19 must fully isolate for seven days before returning to work.
Fitzgerald said a child should not gather with friends outside of school unless they’re in that child’s “tight 10” contacts. Team sports are still banned.
The new rules will be posted in flow-chart form online at gov.nl.ca/covid-19.
“This is not the COVID of 2020 or even 2021,” said Fitzgerald, adding that cases are going to spread to some extent no matter what measures are taken. “The Omicron variant has changed the game entirely due to its rapid and efficient transmission, and short incubation period.”
Nonetheless, she ensured parents that studies all show Omicron is usually mild in children, even moreso than earlier variants.
But she conceded the final decision is up to them.
“Every parent has to do what’s best for their child, and nobody knows their child as well as a parent does.”
Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD) CEO Tony Stack said Thursday that contingency plans are in place to handle shortages of teachers and staff should they occur.
That includes drawing on about 130 senior education students from Memorial University if the supply of substitute teachers runs dry, and striking an agreement with unions to allow applications for casual labour if needed.
Stack said the district will provide support for students who have to isolate, but both he and Education Minister Tom Osborne dismissed the possibility of implementing any hybrid model of in-class and online learning.
He said an attempt to do that during an outbreak in February 2021 fell flat.
“It was very challenging,” he said. “There are a finite number of teachers. There’s not enough staffing available to be able to do both.”