Close Nunavut schools for the year, says teachers’ association president
“It’s time to make that call”
The president of the Nunavut Teachers’ Association says the Government of Nunavut should close the territory’s schools for the rest of the school year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
John Fanjoy, NTA president, told Nunatsiaq News that keeping the schools open is causing unnecessary stress on staff and students.
“We believe that, for the safety of all our communities, schools should be closed to students for the remainder of the school year,” Fanjoy said.
“To prolong this, and the undue stress this is placing on our families, the families of our students, and on our communities and the unknown that is happening right now, it’s not necessary. It’s time to make that call,” he said.
If schools do close for the remainder of the school year, teachers will continue working, Fanjoy said.
“That doesn’t mean that teachers stop working. Teachers will continue to work to provide learning opportunities at home for students,” he said.
Speaking at a daily news conference on Wednesday, April 8, Education Minister David Joanasie told reporters that schools in the territory would only reopen on the recommendation of Nunavut’s chief public health officer. A decision about whether to reopen the schools is expected by April 21.
School closures were first announced by George Hickes, Nunavut’s health minister, on March 16, and were extended on March 31 to April 2.
A letter sent to Nunavut school staff from the Department of Education on April 7 ordered all school staff to return to their home communities by April 21.
“This is a mandatory return-to-work date,” the letter said.
Joanasie also said his department would assess requests from teachers to work remotely on a case-by-case basis.
“Yesterday the Department of Education sent a letter to all school staff about returning to work in their home communities on April 21. It is for staff only,” Joanasie said on Wednesday, April 8.
Right now, 93 school staff are out of the territory, Joanasie said.
To come back, Nunavut school staff need to follow the same isolation requirements as other residents returning to the territory. That means a 14-day quarantine period in one of four hotels designated by the GN before flying back.
“We’re making contact with those teachers who are in the south and supporting them in their requests to work from home and advocating to the department to support those requests. They should not put undue stress and anxiety and [the] physical safety of teachers at risk by compelling them to return from southern Canada if they feel they cannot return,” Fanjoy said.
“Many teachers were actually on spring break before the school closure happened, so they were kind of in limbo…. We highly recommended that teachers do not travel, but that doesn’t mean that we recommend that they forcibly be recalled back to Nunavut,” Fanjoy added.
The 93 school staff outside the territory represent around eight per cent of all school staff in Nunavut, Joanasie said. Fanjoy said he wants to know how the department will support teachers who are still in Nunavut when they return to work on April 21.
“We need to start switching our focus from teachers that are in southern Canada to the 90 per cent of teachers that are currently here who are going to be back at the work site. How are we going to be able to support our students, our parents? That’s where the conversation should be right now. It should be ensuring safe, sensible and realistic working conditions for our teachers,” Fanjoy said.
Fanjoy agreed that students should have options for learning at home while schools are closed, especially for those students who don’t have access to a computer or internet.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean a teacher needs to be at the school for four hours every day. That means that a teacher should only be at the work site long enough to produce those packages and have them distributed by the school. Teachers should be at the physical work site as little as possible. That is our opinion.”
But, Fanjoy said, the NTA does not support the collection of those packages by teachers for assessment. The department has not yet said if teachers will be collecting and marking work distributed to students during school closures.
“We think that is unsafe. We do believe that that’s an issue that needs to be addressed and we believe the department is working on that now,” Fanjoy said.
Doug Workman, chair of the Iqaluit District Education Authority, agreed.
“What’s going to happen when they start dispersing the work to the students? We have over 400 students at the high school here.… And how do you coordinate that? Students, generally speaking, need help to do their work. With social distancing, I don’t know how you do that,” Workman said.
Workman also said that some students have different learning methods that can’t be done from home.
“We have many students that have different ways of learning. Some need help, some don’t. It’s a lot more challenging. Some are on different learning plans and this has to be accommodated,” Workman said.
Although schools are closed, teachers were able to go back into their classrooms as of April 7 on a voluntary basis to help support students learning from home.
“I really wish at the beginning someone just took a breath and said, ‘OK we’re going to close the schools on March 17 and before we do that we need some time to prepare continuous learning packages for our students,’ and get an idea of how long this is going to take and how that will [be] choreographed,” Workman said.
James Arreak, executive director of the Nunavut Coalition of DEAs, said the coalition is also concerned about the safety of all school staff, students and parents.
“We’re scrambling to understand what this might mean for students at this time and for communities,” Arreak said.
“We’re trying to find out, do teachers feel safe to travel under these travel-restricted conditions? Hopefully we can figure this out in a way that works out for everyone going forward.”
“We have teachers that have their own children in their homes. We have teachers with underlying health conditions. The department has to be flexible. It has to offer work-from-home provisions for those teachers. It has to offer flexible working hours for teachers who are trying to provide for their students and also manage their personal lives through the pandemic.”
Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s chief medical officer, told reporters on Thursday, April 9, that he would be meeting with the Department of Education next week to discuss school closures.