N.L. back-to-school plan requires masks on buses, in common areas of high schools

Paul Adamus, 7, climbs the stairs of a bus before the fist day of school on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, in Dallas, Ga. Brynn Anderson / Associated Press

Masks must be worn on buses and in the common areas of high schools when Newfoundland and Labrador’s largest school district resumes classes in a few weeks.

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, which represents approximately 64,000 students and more than 8,200 employees, presented its back-to-school plan on Monday.

Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, told an online news conference that students in elementary and high school will need to wear masks on buses. Only high school students, however, will need to wear a mask inside school buildings – and only in common areas.

Fitzgerald said students who “cannot tolerate it” will also be exempted from wearing masks. Masks will not be required in classrooms because students can safely maintain distance while seated, Fitzgerald said, adding that rule may change.

“Our goal in all of this is to have kids go back to school in as normal a way as possible,” Fitzgerald said. “If the information we get changes, if the evidence changes, then we’ll change.”

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The district will provide one reusable mask for each student and two for each teacher.

The provincial government presented a plan last month outlining three possible scenarios when school starts up again: in-class instruction, remote learning or a combination of both.

Monday’s plan departs from the government strategy presented last month, which said masks would not be required in schools.

Tony Stack, the district’s director of education, said Monday all schools in the district will reopen under the first scenario given the low number of COVID-19 infection in the province, where there are two active cases.

Stack said each school will develop a plan that works best for the space and size of the school population, adding the plan is a “living document” that may change before classes resume Sept. 4.

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In the case of a moderate-to-widespread COVID-19 outbreak, schools will move to online learning, while capacity will be limited to about 50 per cent when the outbreak is considered low to moderate.

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Families can apply to homeschool their children if they do not wish to send them back to classes.

The plan also addresses new passenger limits on school buses based on public health guidance. Buses that could formerly accommodate up to 72 students can now only transport 46.

Stack said the 46 students on each route who live furthest from school will be given priority, meaning more than 6,000 students will have to find another ride.

“I realize it’s a difficult thing, but we are in difficult times,” Stack said of the school bus limit. “This is necessary to ensure the health and safety of our students.”

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In the school buildings, there will signage in hallways and other common areas to encourage physical distancing.

A “health room” will be designated in each school in the event someone becomes ill and needs to be isolated.

Extracurricular activities will not be permitted outside school hours to allow staff time to clean the school buildings.

Staff will also undergo training on trauma-informed teaching in order to care for students’ emotional and learning needs.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2020.