The school year in the NWT under new Covid safety measures over the last week has been going “extremely well,” said John MacDonald, assistant deputy minister of the Department of Education, during a teleconference with reporters on Wednesday.
“I think everybody is generally very pleased with the progress so far,” he said.
Most schools opened their doors on Aug. 31.
MacDonald said there is a lot of anxiety around the reopening of schools but that the government is working to ensure education bodies learn about the Covid safety routines and understand why they’re important.
“There have been situations where due to anxiety, rumours (and) gossip … we have had to refer matters to our colleagues in the chief public health officer’s office and enforcement with ProtectNWT,” MacDonald said, without elaborating. “But that’s more based on a lack of understanding. It’s been more of a communications effort than anything else.”
For the most part, students of all ages have been adapting well to the new health guidelines and processes, MacDonald said, adding many parents have taken time over the summer to educate their children about the importance of wearing masks and following Covid protocols.
More would be known about adherence to the regulations in a few weeks, he said.
Chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola, who spoke alongside MacDonald, said it was good to see so many back-to-school posts on social media.
“I thank all of you for adapting to keep each other safe,” she said. “Education authorities have worked very hard to take plans and tailor them to schools across the territory. Everyone should be proud of this milestone. It’s to preserve learning and to reduce the risk and anxiety for parents going to work.”
If a child were in a school setting up to two days before becoming symptomatic, Kandola said the class would be isolated but the school wouldn’t necessarily have to be closed.
“We would follow up on the contacts. If the child has siblings, we have to look at the circumstances of the case. If we have good tracing ability we would know who was exposed and be able to isolate them for 14 days,” she said. “We know from March onwards that shutting a school down is a very serious public health decision. And there are unintended consequences on learning, on mental health and on a whole host of other issues that would need to be considered before we would close down the school.”
In the case of one of two siblings who attend different schools becoming infected with Covid, Kandola said the whole family would have to self-isolate for 14 days to prevent any further spread in the schools or workplaces.
The screening procedures outlined in the GNWT’s Education Bulletin provide a guide for parents, said Kandola. If children show one major or two minor symptoms of Covid, they should stay home, a health-care provider should be contacted and the child should be tested for Covid. If the test is negative and the symptoms are improving, the child can return to school.
Families would not have to self-isolate in those cases, Kandola said.
New violations of health orders
Kandola also announced that there were two new summary offenses since last week, occurring in the North and South Slave regions and were due to failure to follow self-isolation protocols.
“Both were NWT residents. Most people are taking responsibility and following the rules. But when others choose not to take responsibility they put everyone at risk,” Kandola said.
Those offenses bring the total number of fines to 18 in the NWT. Summary offenses come with a charge of $1,725 and are issued by the GNWT’s Compliance and Enforcement Taskforce.
Dennis Marchiori, deputy chief public health officer, who was also part of the teleconference, said the circumstances of the latest violations related to failure to follow self-isolation rules in accordance with the public health order issued on July 16.
With Covid-19 still spreading around the world and a vaccine not yet on the horizon, the focus should be on figuring out how to find a balance and living with the virus, Kandola said.
“The strategic analysis we need to be looking at is how we live with Covid and (find) that balance of increasing freedoms but mitigating risks because we could be living with this for another year, hopefully not two,” she said. “The top priority is the ability to do rapid testing and mass surveillance and quick contact tracing.”
If those capabilities are in place then further freedoms for the NWT could be afforded.
“That is my long-term vision,” Kandola said.