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MLAs press minister on essential status for teachers

Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby asked Education Minister R.J. Simpson on Thursday if teachers can be declared essential workers and receive priority for vaccinations. GNWT image

Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby became the third MLA in as many days to ask Education Minister R.J. Simpson about essential worker status for teachers Thursday.

“Does the minister commit to pushing for teachers to be declared as essential workers and to be given the vaccine right away?” Nokleby asked.

Simpson responded that declaring teachers as essential is up to the chief public health officer (CPHO), who would make that decision based on public health information and “not on political pressure.”

“That being said, we advocate for teachers and I'm happy to bring this to (the CPHO) again for a discussion,” he said.

Many teachers given vaccine opportunity

Teachers in small, remote communities have already been offered the opportunity for first doses of the vaccine when it was made available for all residents over the age of 18, said Darren P. Campbell, spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer.

"The same goes for teachers who are part of priority populations in the larger regional centres. The remaining communities where teachers may not have had a chance to receive the vaccine, if they are not part of the priority populations, are Hay River, Fort Smith, Inuvik and Yellowknife," Campbell said.

"The chief public health officer recognizes that teachers perform critical functions, work in congregate settings with a high number of contacts, and are not able to work virtually. With these factors in mind, the CPHO plans to offer the vaccine to teachers in Hay River, Fort Smith, Inuvik, and Yellowknife starting in early March, once the initial priority populations have been covered, as long as the vaccine shipments arrive on schedule."

Nokleby's request follows a similar one made by Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson, who on Monday asked Health Minister Julie Green if the essential worker designation could be inclusive of educators so they can take trips outside the territory without having to pay for their self-isolation when they return.

“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,” Jacobson said.

In reply, Green said teachers aren't on the list of essential workers and that they must follow the same rules as other residents when returning to the territory from travel that isn't for family or medical purposes.

Semmler weighs in

Inuvik-Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler also expressed on Monday that she feels teachers are essential workers.

She worries that if there isn't more flexibility in allowing teachers to leave and return to the NWT for vacations that they could burn out and choose not to come back.

Simpson said he assumes there would be a higher teacher turnover rate than usual this year. The education minister on Thursday acknowledged the difficulties and mental strain that many teachers are experiencing due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Few professions have been as upended as teachers (during the pandemic),” he said.

He went on to list some of the mental health supports available for both students and teachers.

Counselling services in person, virtually and over the phone are available for students in junior kindergarten to Grade 12.

Teachers can also access mental health programs on digital platforms such as Starling Minds and Life Speak.

“Lots of staff have relied on them,” he said. “Sometimes people think they don't have access to these supports when really they do.”

Nokleby asked Simpson if there has been any increase in educators taking personal days off or going on stress leave as a result of Covid-19, or even anecdotal information to that effect.

“There's no doubt this has been a stressful time,” the minister said. “I've spoken with teachers who are really feeling it. I don't have hard numbers now. We can work with education bodies to know what the effects of the pandemic have been on teachers.”