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GNWT has no plans for deeming teachers essential workers

Classifying teachers as essential workers doesn’t seem to be on the cards, despite concerns being raised by multiple MLAs.

Jackie Jacobson, the MLA for Nunakput, said teachers are afraid to speak out about the difficulties they face, but are asking to be considered essential workers during the pandemic.

“They are really stressed out, and they need the government’s help,” said Jacobson in the Legislative Assembly this week. “Our teachers provide the essential services, but they’re not being treated that way.”

Jacobson noted the expenses for teachers who travel from the south to remote communities can be high and have to pay to self-isolate, both for their accommodations and in lost wages because they can’t return to the classrooms right away.

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MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes Lesa Semmler flagged concerns that teachers would not return after March break if it was not made easier for them to re-enter the territory.

Education Minister R.J. Simpson said there is turnover in teachers in the NWT, and said that the number of teachers who leave the NWT could be higher than usual. 

But he said there wouldn’t be any exemptions for teachers who are travelling south for March break.

“The territory always loses teachers,” he said. “It’s tough to get teachers here, and it’s often difficult to keep them. It’s a different way of life, especially if you’re used to a big city.”

Simpson said fully staffing classrooms and avoiding implementing distance learning was the priority.

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“Staffing has already started for the upcoming year, and so hopefully we’re making these moves early so that we can attract more teachers,” he said. “There is a lot of planning that has to be done.”

Classifying teachers as essential workers would allow them to have the cost of their isolation stays covered by the GNWT and have access to rapid testing, which cuts down the length of isolation periods for essential workers.

Green said rapid testing capacity “does exist in every community but in a fairly limited way” and she hadn’t spoken to the NWT Teachers’ Association about offering rapid testing to teachers.

When priority lists were determined, Health Minister Julie Green said types of workers were assessed based on their risk of contracting and spreading the virus.

“Fortunately for us, schools have been very healthy places,” Green said in a Legislative Assembly. “They have obviously been very diligent with their isolation, with their hand-washing, with their cleaning and so on. Maybe they have done too good a job, but they have not been placed on the priority list at this time.”

Dr. Kami Kandola, NWT’s Chief Public Health Officer said there weren’t plans for teachers to be declared essential workers, and that all teachers would have to continue to isolate for 14-days for the time being. 

Vaccines for teachers?

Kandola added there weren’t plans for setting aside vaccines specifically for teachers.

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That’s because schools are an “enhanced type of congregate setting, making it high risk”, especially elementary schools, where Kandola said no physical distancing rules have been implemented.

“The difficulty of having teachers go back to school, when they’ve travelled out of territory right on day one, is that it introduces a risk in a very unprotected setting and so that has to be taken into consideration,” she said during a press conference on Wednesday.

Green added that teachers in smaller communities would have had the opportunity to be vaccinated because everyone over the age of 18 is eligible for a vaccine in rural and Indigenous communities.

“We do know that we are on track to vaccinate everyone in the Northwest Territories who is 18 years and older by the end of March,” she said. “At that point, teachers will be in the same position as everyone else in terms of having protection.”

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