Nunavut government preparing schools for COVID-19 outbreaks
Teachers’ union says more should be done to help students learn from home
The Government of Nunavut has received a donation of 4,000 plastic face shields from a Canadian company.
The masks, donated by the Canadian Shield, are being stored in Iqaluit as part of the government’s preparation for possible outbreaks of COVID-19 in the territory while school’s in session.
The shields “would be deployed as part of COVID response material if we have to move between stage one and other elevated risks,” said Education Minister David Joanasie.
“Stage one” refers to Nunavut’s official return to school plan that was released in July. That stage means that there are currently no cases of COVID-19 in the territory, and it’s safe for children to attend school.
“Elevated risks” would mean COVID-19 is present in Nunavut, and would result in the territory, or a part of the territory, moving into stages two, three or four, depending on the severity of the outbreak.
The Department of Education hired a company called BluMetric Environmental, Joanasie said, to train custodial staff at each school how to properly clean to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“This involves how to develop a very strong and conducive cleaning process for our custodians to make sure they know the solution measurements and having the right equipment,” Joanasie said.
The company hired a charter plane to travel to each community. The training of Nunavut school staff is still “ongoing,” Joanasie said.
Training involves giving staff support manuals, as well as protective equipment like gloves, aprons and eyewear.
This is all what Joanasie called “our illness response kit.” Custodians will use the protective gear while cleaning the school if any staff or students have symptoms of COVID-19.
Teachers and senior staff are also being given protective gear and are learning the proper cleaning techniques.
In addition to this, Joanasie said the department is also being proactive in case schools shut down and students have to learn from home again, as they did in mid-March of this year.
The department is trying to “build on its experience” in the spring to ensure students have the support they need to work from home, Joanasie said. That includes having a place to work at home, help from parents, guardians or teachers, and access to computers or tablets connected to the internet.
Teachers are creating learning packages for students to take home. Unlike in the spring, students will be evaluated on the work they do at home this time around.
John Fanjoy, the president of the Nunavut Teachers’ Association, has criticized the plan to create these learning packages. The packages are five days’ worth of lessons that teachers must complete by the end of September.
He argues that these lessons won’t be relevant to what students will be learning if schools shut down in December or January.
“Why aren’t they figuring out how to create technological support in case of a shutdown?” Fanjoy said.
“We’re trying to think of all the different scenarios, but we can’t think of every scenario that can happen,” Joanasie said.
The department plans to have an online platform for students to access learning resources, Joanasie said.
He said they’re looking to get “devices and internet capabilities,” but that every jurisdiction in Canada is trying to get the technology to allow students to learn from home.
“We’re trying to get in line and get these resources in place as soon as possible,” he said.
Fanjoy is skeptical that the work being done in preparation for cases of COVID-19 is enough to keep the standard of education in Nunavut at the same level as the rest of the country.
Students in southern Canada have access to technology so they can learn from home online, he said.
“In Nunavut we’re photocopying reams of paper and putting together packages and having people come to the school and pick them up because the technology and infrastructure aren’t there,” Fanjoy said.
Schools have limited tablets and laptops, he said, but those stay in the school. “The learning has to stop” if students have to leave school, he said.
Joanasie said the department worked closely with Nunavut’s chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, to create its return to school plan. Patterson said it’s crucial for students to be learning at school while it’s safe to do so.
That’s because distance education in general isn’t as good as in-person learning, Patterson said. That’s especially the case when students don’t have the resources at home to learn properly.
Delays in learning can in turn delay graduation, which can affect job prospects, Patterson said. But on top of that, the loss of social contact with friends can have “significant impacts on children.”
“Children can get COVID, they can get sick from it,” Patterson said, “but it’s a much lower chance the younger you are, so the harms of missing school are greater than the harms of the infection.”
Patterson said in an “uncontrolled outbreak” schools will close, but that “we have to recognize there’s a trade-off when we close schools or alter schedules.”
People are tired of hearing they have to wash their hands and keep safe distances from each other, Patterson said, especially since Nunavut hasn’t had a case of COVID-19. But he said that developing these habits not only keeps people safe from COVID-19, but also from colds, flus and other infectious diseases that start to spread at this time of year.