Hay River’s Princess Alexandra School -– like all others in the NWT –- will remain closed for the rest of the school year, despite some confusion created by the May 12 release of a plan to ease Covid-19 restrictions.
Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

The educational sector in Hay River and the South Slave was caught off guard on May 12 when it was announced that schools could reopen from their Covid-19 closures – an idea that was rejected after just two days.

“I wasn’t aware of the government’s plan until I watched it on Cabin Radio,” said Pennie Pokiak. “I was flabbergasted, to be honest.”

Pokiak represents the Hay River District Education Authority (DEA) on the South Slave Divisional Education Council (SSDEC), the region’s school board.

“All I can say is I never got to be part of the conversation about this,” she said. “So our local DEA wasn’t brought in on these conversations.”

While announcing easing of Covid-19 restrictions in a document called Emerging Wisely, Dr. Kami Kandola, the NWT’s chief public health officer, noted that elementary, middle and high schools could reopen with changes, despite the GNWT having announced in mid-March that they would be closed for the rest of the school year.

That recent announcement put people in quite a predicament, said Pokiak. “Obviously, parents want their kids to go back to school, and some parents don’t want their kids to go back to school if they think the environment is unsafe. So I don’t know what mix is out there of who would have sent their kids back and who wouldn’t have, but it’s kind of like dangling a carrot in front of people’s noses and then not being able to follow through.”

Curtis Brown, superintendent of the SSDEC in Fort Smith, did not get much warning of the announcement that schools could reopen.

“We didn’t find out about the announcement and what would be included in the announcement until the morning of,” he said, referring to Kandola’s May 12 news conference.

Brown said, when he later discussed the announcement with the chair of the SSDEC and chairs of most DEAs in the South Slave, all were a bit shocked.

The superintendent explained that reopening schools would mean numerous logistical concerns, such as creating a plan, getting it approved by the GNWT and implementing changes.

And he noted some schools have already packed up for the summer because of the closure decision in mid-March.

Other schools, like Paul William Kaeser (PWK) High School and Joseph Burr Tyrrell (JBT) Elementary School in Fort Smith, are undergoing renovations.

“The front doors are off PWK and JBT, and there’s plywood all across the entranceways,” Brown noted.

During a teleconference on May 13, Education, Culture and Employment Minister R.J. Simpson discussed the reopening issue with the 10 chairs of regional education authorities.

Speaking to The Hub the following day, Simpson said there was unanimous agreement the schools should remain closed for the rest of the school year.

“Everyone was on the same page,” he said. “A lot of them had the same concerns even though all of the regions are so different and there’s such differences between communities.”

Simpson said the education leaders noted that, logistically, it would be very difficult to bring students back and implement the recommendations in the Emerging Wisely plan.

“Schools were closed (in March) for the rest of the school year, and so actions were taken based on that,” he said. “Some schools are being renovated right now and they can’t have students back. There are still concerns from local governments about Covid and mass gatherings. So there’s resistance to open schools from some local governments and from a lot of parents, as well.”

In addition, Simpson noted many teachers are not currently available.

“There’s maybe around 100 teachers who aren’t even in the territory,” he said. “Some communities have no teachers in them and no principals. So there’d be no opportunity for them to open schools.”

When asked if there was a lack of information sharing before Kandola’s announcement, Simpson replied, “The plan to reopen the territory is Dr. Kandola’s plan, and the delivery of education belongs to the education bodies. So Dr. Kandola recommended reopening schools based on her medical experience and the research she’s done, and her assessment of how safe it would be. But that doesn’t mean that operationally it could actually be done, and that’s the case in this situation here.”

The minister noted that Kandola’s directions on what will be required to reopen the schools will be useful in September.

On May 13, Kandola was asked about the surprise that greeted her announcement that schools could reopen.

She noted there is enough evidence and data to show that children aged 19 and under are at lower risk from Covid-19 and that, from a public health point of view, schools can be permitted to reopen.

“We just provide the parameters,” Kandola added. “We provide the risk assessment, and the final decision is with an education authority.”

Paul Bickford

Paul Bickford is the reporter for Hay River Hub.

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