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N.L. presents three scenarios for return to school during pandemic in the fall

A empty classroom is pictured at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020. Newfoundland and Labrador's plan for the upcoming school year aims to maximize in-class attendance with the option for schools to return to remote learning if COVID-19 risk increases. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Newfoundland and Labrador’s back-to-school plan aims to maximize in-class attendance with the option of a return to remote learning if the COVID-19 risk increases.

The Education Department released its plan Monday for resuming kindergarten through Grade 12 in the fall, after classes were cancelled in March to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“We are preparing and hopeful that schools will reopen and daily classes will resume in September,” Liberal Education Minister Brian Warr said during an announcement streamed live from Indian River High School in Springdale, N.L.

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Newfoundland and Labrador’s plan is composed of three scenarios: in-class instruction, remote learning or a combination of both, depending on the COVID-19 risk in a particular community.

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The plan allows school districts to determine what scenarios work best for them, for individual schools, in order to avoid a province-wide shutdown of the education system.

Districts are also responsible for configuring classrooms and other spaces to maintain physical distancing and for developing protocols for hygiene and for isolating students who become ill.

The Education Department is aiming to limit classroom attendance to 50 per cent when the COVID-19 risk in a community is considered low to moderate. Classroom priority will be given to students in kindergarten through Grade 6, to kids who have special needs, and for children of essential workers.

In the event of moderate-to-widespread transmission of COVID-19, school districts will move to online learning with a minimum number of hours of instruction each week on core curriculum.

The plan includes health guidelines schools must follow, including regular deep cleaning of surfaces, physical distancing, and grouping students by cohorts to minimize their interactions with others.

Parents and guardians will be asked to go over a checklist at home regarding COVID-19 exposure and symptoms before sending their kids to school. Staff will be asked to review a similar questionnaire before going to work.

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Newfoundland and Labrador says it will spend $20 million to purchase laptops for teachers and students in Grades 7 through 12 to support remote learning.

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The Education Department says public health measures so far have been necessary, but they have had an adverse effect on children.

“It is critical that the risks of COVID-19 in children be balanced with the harms of school closure, which is impacting their physical and mental health,” the department’s plan reads.

There are no known active cases of COVID-19 in the province, which lifted a number of pandemic-related restrictions on businesses and social activity over the past few weeks.

Opposition politicians criticized what they said was the plan’s lack of detail and questioned what additional resources would be made available to support school staff.

Progressive Conservative education critic Craig Pardy, formerly a school principal, said in a statement he was “astounded by the lack of detail” released Monday.

“This so-called ‘plan’ maintains the same number of children on our school busses and in the classroom while leaving teachers to figure it out,” Pardy said. “Parents, students, teachers, and staff should be shocked and disappointed by today’s announcement.”

Jim Dinn, NDP education critic, also criticized what he said was a lack of clarity in the government’s back-to-school strategy. He said the plan places too much responsibility on school districts.

Dinn, a former educator and past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association, said cleaning schedules were difficult to maintain before the pandemic and physical distancing would be a challenge in school buildings.

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He said the plan could place the burden of maintaining public health standards on teachers, calling it a “logistical nightmare.”

“This will ultimately come down to a question of adequate resources,” Dinn said in a statement. “I’m not convinced schools will have them. My greatest fear is that teachers and parents will once again have to do their best to make an under-resourced system function properly and safely.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2020.

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