Kuptana Helak (left) and his partner Eva Akhok (right) of Cambridge Bay have struggled with whether to keep their kids at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic or send them back to school. (Photo courtesy of Kuptana Helak)

Nunavut parents weight pros and cons of school amid COVID-19

‘It’s a double jeopardy for me as a parent,’ says Cambridge Bay father

By Mélanie Ritchot

More schools across Nunavut are opening at full capacity after being closed earlier this year by COVID-19, but pandemic challenges have created a bumpy first week back for many students and parents.

With an overcrowded home and two children too young to be vaccinated, one father of five from Cambridge Bay worries about sending his three school-aged children back to class.

On one hand, Kuptana Helak said if one of his kids were to carry the virus from school, his whole family would be at risk. He and his family live in a two-bedroom open-concept home.

“When one of us gets the flu, all of us get the flu, it goes around and around in our home and there’s no way to contain it,” he said.

On the other hand, he and his common law partner want their children to get the best education possible and teaching four kids at home is difficult, with a baby to care for as well.

“It’s a double jeopardy for me as a parent,” said Helak.

In the end, he said they made the difficult decision to send their children back to school soon, both for the kids’ sake and to give Helak and his partner the chance to properly care for their four-month-old and toddler at home.

Helak said many parents he’s talked to around town, worried about COVID-19, have opted to keep their kids at home.

Schools in Cambridge Bay are currently operating at 50 per cent capacity and there were 40 active cases of the virus in the community on Monday.

In Iqaluit, where schools have been open at 100 per cent capacity for one full week as of Monday, multiple classes have been cancelled because of a shortage of teachers and substitute teachers.

“It has not been good,” said Doug Workman, the head of Iqaluit’s district education authority.

A personal hazard assessment tool provided to school staff by the Department of Education says employees must isolate immediately and call the COVID-19 hotline for further instructions if they have at least one symptom of COVID-19.

Between the two elementary schools, the middle school and the high school in Iqaluit, Workman said about 20 teachers were off work last week because they had to isolate.

A fuel leak at Aqsarniit middle school last week shortened the week even more for those students.

“That’s a lot of staff,” Workman said.

“That’s scary stuff we’re talking about.”

There are only about 10 substitutes on the list in Iqaluit, and many of them work other full-time jobs, don’t get paid a competitive wage for substitute shifts, or are also substitutes at the French school in town and in Apex, Workman said.

Some student support teachers, who regularly do things like facilitating group work, are stepping up to teach entire classes, he said.

On Nov. 19, before the current wave of the COVID-19 pandemic began, there were 59 vacant teacher positions across the territory, according to Troy Rhoades, a spokesperson for the Department of Education.

When school staff are absent for any reason, substitute teachers are hired, and if there aren’t enough, specific classes can be cancelled temporarily, Rhoades wrote in an email on Jan. 14.

Students are also staying home more than normal. In the first week of full capacity classes, Workman said about 80 per cent of Iqaluit students attended classes on average.

He said based on what he’s hearing from parents, he thinks some are keeping kids at home because they’re worried about the transmission of COVID-19.

“They want to keep their kids safe,” he said.

On Jan. 20, Health Minister John Main said parents must weigh the risk of sending their kids back to school themselves and he understands many factors go into this decision.

When asked last week about school attendance, Education Minister Pamela Gross she couldn’t say how many kids went back to schools across the territory during the first week of reopening.

Nunavut’s chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, has said the risk of the virus being transmitted within schools is low, or isn’t riskier than other activities in the community.

On Jan. 20, he encouraged parents to consider risks outside of schools, such as visiting between households, which could be the same or greater than the risk of sending a child to school.

Still, Workman said he has been hearing of kids being sent to school after testing positive for COVID-19.

“They’re saying it is minimal transmission in the schools but that’s not what we’re hearing on the ground,” Workman said.

The Education Department doesn’t publicly announce cases of COVID-19 detected among students.

On Monday, schools in Rankin Inlet and Arviat opened to 100 per cent capacity, while schools in Coral Harbour, Igloolik and Taloyoak are completely closed.

Schools in Baker Lake, Cambridge Bay, Kinngait, and Sanikiluaq are open at 50 per cent capacity, while all others are open at 100 per cent capacity.

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(15) Comments:

  1. Posted by angry mom on

    Cases keep going up in Iqaluit. Schools open 100% capacity and everything else is closed. Why are restaurants still takeout? Is Dr. Patterson funnelling the virus into the schools to create herd immunity? Dr. Patterson, if you want us to learn to live with the virus don’t keep everything closed except schools. Open everything up to create your herd immunity. Don’t have children bear the brunt of all this. I thought we’re supposed to put children first, not children first for covid.

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  2. Posted by Northerner on

    Things are starting to open up around the world, either join in or stay home and cross your fingers that you don t catch it.

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  3. Posted by GN Communication Kluster F*** on

    “Nunavut’s chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, has said the risk of the virus being transmitted within schools is low.”

    While there is some research that suggests this is true the GN needs to do a much better job of communicating its rationale on this to the public. As it is this seems hard to believe, worse it appears motivated by other interests. Whatever those might be.

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    • Posted by angry mom on

      Iqaluit is up to 133 cases now. I know some cases are due to the jail but if schools and the college are the only thing open how do they account for the rest of the cases. Also, when parents are getting exposure notices from school and classes are closing down due to covid, I don’t think we can say schools are low risk anymore.

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    • Posted by Amanda on

      Didn’t they tell us the same thing about the “low-risk” of catching Covid on an airplane? Yet we’re all masked-up and threatened with police action if we take the damned thing off.

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  4. Posted by No more half-stepping on

    Either open everything or close everything!

    This whole optional work-from-home shit at the GN offices is rediculous too. GN staff already get enough vacation, why give them more? And stop thinking that people are actually “working from home”.

    Make up your dang mind Dr. P!

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  5. Posted by Band Wagon SKUNK WORK’s – LET’s LEAD EDUCATION to IMPROVED on

    EDUCATION IN NUNAVUT is certainly below average ACROSS CANADA. You’ll notice stat’s approx. 5% Nunavut students GO post-secondary if CURRICULUM program’s are delivered as required to succeed in COLLEGE or UNIVERSTY:
    – ENGLISH (Grammar or HOW to READ & WRITE)
    – MATH (Need to know Mathematics to succeed Pilot Training, or Accounting etc.)
    – SCIENCE (at least need to know some science BIOLOGY or CHEMISTRY to become a NURSE or DOCTOR)

    These are CRITICAL AREA’s in NUNAVUT EDUCATION that needs to be IMPROVED as part of PRO’s & CON’s.

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    • Posted by Question on

      Did you pass? Since you capitalize most of your words, I assume you did not well in grammar either LOL.

      Seriously, I agree with you. The lack of simple reading, writing and math skills are already shown when new applicants want to join the trade school in Rankin Inlet. You have to know some math if you want to become a trades person.
      Wake up, go to school and become an idol for for your kids, showing them what hard work and honesty can bring and how satisfying it is. Long term thinking and planning

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      • Posted by Band Wagon SKUNK WORK’s – Versus EDUCATION for IMPROVEMENT’s on

        This EDUCATION to FOLLOW-UP to be Delivered in SCHOOL’s:
        – English Grammar (capacity to read and write, or be literate)
        – Mathematic (to have capacity to know math in College or University, or trades)
        – Social Studies (to have capacity to know history in text book)
        – Science (learn some basics that relates biology, or chemistry) to pursue Nursing or become a doctor, or biologists etc.

        These are general basic’s necessities in EDUCATION at every level, and certainly NOT full-time scale of Cultural Programs that is NOT relevant to STUDENT’s LEARNING. History of open EXAM’s textbook in School with students!?! This is a critical issue to be address. Education??? Provide core basic EDUCATION that will OPEN obstacles to further students EDUCATION in POST-SECONDARY with quality TEACHING! SOCIALPATHY!?!

    • Posted by Uvanga on

      This is good. Now put your name in for your local DEA and put in some effort to boost enrolment numbers and graduation rates.

      So many people have opinions but never bring them forward to the appropriate channels yet expect things to improve on their own.

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  6. Posted by Umingmak on

    Open everything up and return to 100% normal, like in 2019. There is no need for these restrictions. Children should not be stripped of their human right to a good education.

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    • Posted by Human Right on

      Human Right of Education LOL. You are aware of the fact that attendance is extremely low in Nunavut. Who is violating the Human Right of Education when the truancy is on top of the charts. Parents? YES!

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  7. Posted by Skunk Work’s Band Wagon – Leadership Roles Responsibility EDUCATION TEAM on

    The Department of EDUCATION needs to start creating EMPLOYMENT to HIRE QUALIFIED Educators with ACADEMIC Background’s – COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY to Pursue!?!
    – MATH TEACHER
    – ENLISH TEACHER
    – SCIENCE TEACHER
    – Certified GYM Teacher
    Here is wish list’s

    These are critical solutions to approach students EDUCATION to pursue post-secondary with good academic background to back career learning’s. This is known as part of Skunk Work’s! This should be approach to address weaknesses, and identify critical areas to provide Quality Education in School’s! NOT soap-opera or drama! Known as SPOIL alert’s!

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    • Posted by If all southerners… on

      A lot of the time you hear in Nunavut “teachers only come here for the money.”

      Well, if the money is so good why is there nearly 60 vacancies?

      My guess is finding certified teachers is getting harder and harder. Finding those that want to fill isolated northern conditions are drying up.

      It is up to the people here to raise their children to be educated Ang get the certification they need to fill these positions. Step number one is learning OUTSIDE of the classroom.

      You will often hear parent lament teachers phoning in their schoolwork. Supplement your child’s education. Step up to the plate. The teachers are limited by the overall education level of the classroom. Aka they must play to the lowest common denominator. If your children is yearning for more knowledge provide it.

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  8. Posted by S on

    Clearly our politicians and journalists completed only drama courses while attending high school.

    Please, let’s stop the theatre completely; either we shut down everything, including grocery stores, utility services, and hospitals until covidmania has been eradicated or return EVERYTHING back to normal as we should have done 24 months ago

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