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Some health measures in schools to be lifted in September

In just a few weeks, kids will head back to school and back to a semblance of pre-COVID-19 normalcy.
Ian Cockburn teaches his Grade 6 class of 18 students at Range Lake North School in September of 2020. Some health measures, like staggered class times and reduced class sizes will no longer be in effect when schools start in the NWT in late August and early September, said the Department of Education, Culture and Employment. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

In just a few weeks, kids will head back to school and back to a semblance of pre-COVID-19 normalcy.

Some of the public health measures schools saw last year will be relaxed when classes resume in late August and early September as vaccination rates continue to rise, said Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) spokesperson Briony Grabke.

Masks won’t be required in classrooms but will have to be worn on school buses and in common areas, like school hallways.

The system of classroom bubbles where students studied and interacted only with their classmates indoors will be a recommended measure.

Class times will no longer be staggered to allow for physical distancing and all grades can return to their pre-pandemic class sizes.

Other, existing health measures will remain in effect for the 2021-2022 school year.

Students and staff must continue to the use the Daily Symptom Screening Tool before going to school. A stricter version of that tool was unveiled in May, just a few weeks after the COVID-19 outbreak began at N.J. Macpherson School. The original version of the screening tool was released in August 2020.

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“Students and staff will not be permitted to attend school if they have symptoms,” Grabke said.

Certain classes and activities will not be allowed yet, including drama classes and theatre productions, singing, choir, assemblies, large gatherings, concerts, band programs or playing wind instruments indoors.

Those activities are prohibited because children under 12 are not yet eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines, said ECE spokesperson Katherine Barton.

“As learned from the N.J. Macpherson outbreak, schools can be a difficult environment to limit the spread of COVID-19,” she said. “Children often have little or no symptoms or very mild symptoms of COVID- 19. The restrictions on gatherings in school settings remain in place as a result until this final population (5 to 12-year-olds) is able to be vaccinated. Some limits on gatherings and higher risk activities in schools and in the community will need to be maintained to avoid the risk of super spreader events.”

Schools can apply for approval to hold “high risk” events and gatherings of more than 200 people if they put in place appropriate mitigations of risk, Barton said.

High-contact physical activities such as wrestling or dancing with a partner also won’t be permitted.

However, other sports like basketball, volleyball, soccer and football will be allowed.

Hockey, skating and curling are on the list of prohibited sports as well, since their cold environments raise the risk of spreading the virus.

Schools are encouraged to organize physical education and activities outdoors to decrease the risk of COVID-19 transmission, said Grabke.

Remaining health measures in schools can be lifted along with all other restrictions in the NWT when the territory reaches herd immunity at a vaccination rate of 75 per cent, Canada’s vaccination rate reaches 66 to 75 per cent and COVID-19 infections remain under seven-day averages of 1,000 cases.

That is forecast to happen in the mid to late fall, according to the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer’s Emerging Wisely plan.

Restrictions could be lifted sooner if children under 12 years of age can be vaccinated, but progress on that is likely several months away.

“Both Pfizer and Moderna started trials of their COVID-19 vaccines for children ages five to 11 in March,” COVID-19 Co-ordinating Secretariat spokesperson Kelley Ryder said.

“We anticipate that results on the vaccine trials in children ages five to 11 will be available sometime this fall. Trials are also under way for children ages two to four, but those results are not expected until the end of the year.”