Arctic MLAs raised concerns about the status of teachers amid the difficulties of pandemic on Monday.
Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson said teachers in the Beaufort Delta want access to rapid testing and to be designated as essential workers so they don’t have to pay for their self-isolation when returning to the NWT after spring break.
Teachers fear backlash for publicly airing their concerns related to travel in and out of the NWT, Jacobson said.
He asked Health Minister Julie Green why the designation of “essential worker” applies to doctors and nurses but not teachers.
“They need support. I need help from ministers on this to help my teachers,” he said.
Under the regulations of the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer, essential service workers include health and social service providers, postal service workers, peace officers, emergency responders, military personnel and others.
Those regulations were last updated on Dec. 15, 2020.
Teachers are not on that list, a fact Green reiterated in her response to Jacobson.
Green explained that the goal of the Covid-19 vaccination campaign is to vaccinate everyone in the NWT who is 18 years of age and older by the end of March, at which point teachers “will be in the same position as everyone else.”
However, she added that border controls aren’t likely to be relaxed by the end of March because vaccination rates elsewhere in Canada are much lower than in the NWT.
“Why is it so hard getting essential worker status for teachers?” Jacobson asked in reply. “They’ve done so much for the students but they’re asking for help right now. They need to get out. It’s been a year almost since some of them have returned home. They need support for holidays (and) giving them a break.”
Green said that where vaccines have been administered in small communities “every adult over 18 has received a vaccine and of course that includes teachers.”
Although almost all small communities in the NWT have been given the chance for first doses of the Moderna vaccine, it’s not clear that second doses - required for full immunization - have been administered in those places.
Second doses for Elders
Health officials began administering second doses to Elders Jan. 28 in Yellowknife, Behchoko, Hay River, Inuvik and Fort Simpson.
“In terms of leaving the territory, no one is a prisoner here,” said Green, who then explained the policy that NWT residents returning to the territory must pay for their own self-isolation costs if their travel was not for medical or family purposes.
Inuvik-Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler doubled down on the question of essential service status for teachers, saying they provide “what I feel is an essential service to children.”
“What is the plan for approving travel this spring break (for teachers) since it was such a hot topic at Christmas?”
Education Minister R.J. Simpson replied that the plan would be very similar to what it was for Christmas.
In December, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) determined that teachers have to apply for extended unpaid leave for the Christmas break. Teachers granted that time off wouldn’t receive paid leave while self-isolating and would have to prepare lesson plans for the time they were away from classes.
Matthew Miller, NWT Teachers Association president called the decision “extremely disappointing”
Semmler asked if ECE has surveyed whether there would be large numbers of job vacancies in September, implying that the lack of vacations at Christmas and spring break would exhaust them to the point of leaving permanently.
Sacrifices by teachers
Simpson acknowledged the sacrifices educators have made during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s tough to get teachers here and it’s often difficult to keep them," he said. "It’s a different way of life (here). We often lose teachers at Christmas. Some don’t come back after the break.”
He said he expected teacher turnover and assumed a higher number than normal wouldn’t come back.
Semmler wondered if this would lead to more distance learning classes for students due to the lack of teachers.
Simpson said added distance learning is the last thing ECE wants, and stressed that he hopes to attract more teachers to the NWT.