N.L. schools to reopen Tuesday, officials report two more COVID-19 deaths

Newfoundland and Labrador students in kindergarten to Grade 12 will be heading back to class Tuesday morning, though the province's teachers association says it cannot stand by the decision.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the province's chief medical officer of health, said Thursday the decision to restart in-class learning wasn't made lightly. She said she understood the widespread concern -- the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is still infecting hundreds of people in the province each day.

"We cannot let fear guide our decisions," Fitzgerald told reporters in St. John's. "One of the most important lessons that emerged from this pandemic is how important school is for children. Not just for their academic well-being, but also for their physical and emotional well-being."

But the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association isn't on board.

"The NLTA cannot support a return to in-person learning on Jan. 25," president Trent Langdon said in a news release after Fitzgerald's announcement. "It is simply too soon given the current COVID-19 situation in the province."

Students have been learning from home since Jan. 4. They'll have to take two rapid tests before returning to school -- one 72 hours before their first day and the other on Tuesday morning, before classes begin, officials said.

Schools distributed kits of five rapid tests per student this week. Officials say the three remaining tests can be used if students begin experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

Fitzgerald said that parents don't have to report positive results from these tests, but she said the testing regime is required.

"We are asking parents to do the right thing and help us to reduce the risk of COVID spread as students start back to school," she said.

About 75 per cent of kids aged five to 11 have had their first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, which Fitzgerald said is the highest vaccination rate among children in the country. Kids will have to wear masks at school, and Fitzgerald recommended using masks with three layers, or wearing two masks at once.

Rapid tests will also be provided to daycares, she said.

Fitzgerald reported 360 new confirmed cases Thursday, with 25 per cent of tests completed in the last 24 hours yielding a positive result. Two more people in the province died from COVID-19 since Wednesday, she said.

There were 60 people in hospital with COVID-19 Thursday afternoon, and 20 of them were admitted because of the disease, a spokeswoman for the Health Department said in an email. Five of those 60 patients were in critical care.

The teachers association said it agrees that in-school learning is critical for kids, but it warned that a return to school before it's safe will only result in further interruptions.

Fitzgerald said the province will remain in Alert Level 4, which restricts households to 10 close contacts. The association said it would like to see schools reopen when health officials determine it's safe enough to loosen those restrictions and move to a lower alert level.

"We recognize that schools have been open for in-person learning during Alert Level 4 previously, but that was before the degree and intensity of spread and outbreaks we are experiencing with the Omicron variant," the association's news release said.

Tony Stack, chief executive officer of the province's English school board, said there is plenty of help available from retired teachers, teaching assistants and about 1,100 substitute teachers if large numbers of teachers are forced off work because of the disease.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2022.