Children in the territory returned to school as scheduled on Jan. 4, despite requests from both the Council of Yukon First Nations and the educator’s union to delay the start of school due to rising Omicron cases.
“My preference is to see a pivot to online learning this week, to see where the case count is going. We don’t know how bad it is going to get. I’m not in favor of closing schools, never have been,” said Ted Hupé, president of the Yukon Association of Education Professionals.
“But the deputy minister and the ADM, for the past two years, have been saying we have a flexible system that can pivot to online learning. If not now, then when is the right time?” he said.
Mathieya Alatini, COVID-19 lead for CYFN, confirmed that a request came from a number of First Nation chiefs asking for the delay, particularly in rural communities concerned about staff returning from holiday travel.
“We have people who have gone Outside, they could be returning to the rural communities or rural schools and bringing Omicron to the communities,” said Hupé.
The CMOH has recommended travellers who are returning to the territory isolate for at least three days. Hupé explained that teachers returning from travel are deemed essential employees, but reasons to isolate — travel, mild symptoms or close contacts with positive cases — are mounting up.
On Tuesday, Porter Creek Secondary School in Whitehorse announced it would pivot to online learning for the rest of the week due to a staff shortage.
“We are making this change for operational reasons due to staffing challenges currently faced by the school,” wrote assistant deputy minister Ryan Sikkes in a notice sent to parents. “This change is not the result of any public health concerns. The school remains safe and the acting Chief Medical Officer of Health has not recommended any changes to the direction to continue with in-person instruction.”
Saskatchewan and the Yukon are the only two jurisdictions in Canada that did not delay the return to school following the winter break.
Dawson school requested opening delay
In Dawson, despite concern from parents and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation government, Robert Service School is still operating.
Attendance was low on Tuesday, with 36 kids recorded in classrooms and nine staff away, according to principal Brian Lewthwaite. Normal enrollment is around 224 students, according to registration numbers from the start of the school year.
Lewthwaite made a social media post to the school’s page on Monday and Tuesday evenings, noting that many residents have concerns about COVID-19 cases in Dawson City.
“We are in a very vulnerable time as a community. The heightened concern and decision-making around attending school is one I applaud,” wrote Brian Lewthwaite. “If your child is at school be assured we are taking greater attention to social distancing, sanitizing and inter-bubble contact. Teachers are encouraged to be in contact with you in regards to home learning, and likely many have been in contact with you already.”
Lewthwaite said a request was made to delay the start of classes at the school because of the situation in the community, but the chief medical officer recommended all schools open as scheduled.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in government closed its offices and Tr’inke Zho daycare on Jan. 4 due to uncertainty about the size of the outbreak in Dawson.
While many parents were confident about sending their children to school on Tuesday, citing other important concerns about socializing, academics, routine and childcare, others felt stuck between two tough decisions.
Keeping a student home when the school has not pivoted to online means a missed day of learning, explained Whitehorse parent Harmony Istchenko.
Istchenko’s son attends Grade 8 at Porter Creek Secondary School. She decided to keep her son home on Jan. 5, but worried about missing a review for exams that are coming up at the end of the week.
“I felt like the government was putting me in a really bad place to make a decision I didn’t want,” she said.
“It’s not that I think schools should all be online for the rest of the winter. But I think we’re coming out of a holiday. God knows how many people are still coming back [from travel]. It would just give a bit of time,” she said.
She said she felt relieved when the school made the announcement that a staff shortage would mean online learning for the week.
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