Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) Minister R.J. Simpson wrapped up the 2019-2020 school year with a teleconference on July 7, 2020 with Northwest Territories (NWT) Education Leaders and the NWT Teachers’ Association (NWTTA) to reflect on lessons learned from the final months of the 2019-2020 school year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much more is now known about COVID-19 since the early days of the pandemic in March, when education bodies made the decision to close schools. This increased understanding, coupled with evolving advice from the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer (OCPHO), has allowed education bodies to proceed with the development of comprehensive reopening plans for each school, aimed at keeping students in school as much as possible in the 2020-2021 school year.
Although education leaders have always understood and supported schools to be hubs for learning and social development and safe spaces for children and youth, the pandemic has reemphasized the vital role schools play in each community. For the benefit of students and their families, ECE and education leaders will be supporting education bodies to keep schools open as much as possible, even if there are new cases of COVID-19 in the territory. As decisions are made related to a potential second wave of COVID-19, these decisions will be made not out of fear, but based on the most up-to-date public health research and recommendations.
Central to the need for continuing in-person education wherever possible are the technological challenges of providing full-time distance learning. The pandemic has highlighted gaps in telecommunications infrastructure, capacity and equipment in communities and homes across the NWT, and attempts to lean upon those technologies full-time would be technically, financially, mentally and emotionally unsustainable for a large percentage of NWT students and their families.
Education leaders cautioned that the unpredictable circumstances of the pandemic could result in some schools closing temporarily due to COVID-19. In these instances, schools will be prepared to adapt to blended or distance learning for students. An increased understanding of COVID-19 and reflection on lessons learned has helped to place a priority focus on continuing full-time, in-person learning, especially for the youngest students in Junior Kindergarten up to Grade 9, who are at lowest risk of getting or spreading COVID-19. Regardless of grade level, all students will be provided with opportunities for continued learning throughout the 2020-2021 school year.
All leaders agreed that the high level of interagency collaboration and communication maintained since March, including daily meetings between ECE and education superintendents, biweekly education leaders’ meetings, and regular communications between ECE and the OCPHO, was critical in allowing the education system to respond effectively and consistently to COVID-19 with a focus on equity across regions. Education leaders’ meetings will begin again in late summer and continue throughout the 2020-2021 school year.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been an important learning experience for the education system in adapting to rapidly changing information while working to ensure the health and safety of all. Although we could not have foreseen the pandemic, our coordination with the Chief Public Health Officer and education bodies over the past months has allowed us to put the planning in place for the 2020-2021 school year so we can reopen schools safely for the benefit of our students and communities.”
-R.J. Simpson, Minister of Education, Culture and Employment
“The school closures in March 2019 were a wakeup call to us all. Education bodies had to mobilize quickly to deliver the best quality education possible under the circumstances. Although there were many successes, we have learned a great deal about the various challenges in each of our jurisdictions. Our goal is to continue to work closely with the Chief Public Health Officer, ECE and the NWTTA to open schools as much as possible, while ensuring the safety and success of all NWT students. Once our individual school plans are approved by the OCPHO, each education body will be able to share their plans with their stakeholders.”
-Simon Cloutier, Chair of Commission scolaire francophone des Territoires du Nord-Ouest, on behalf of NWT Education Leaders
Government of the Northwest Territories