Winter is approaching, Six Nations has the highest per capita Covid positivity rate in the province, and a new Covid variant has emerged.
In spite of that, Six Nations of the Grand River Elected Council agreed at last week’s general council meeting to remove cohorts (staggered class sizes) and fully re-open federal schools on the reserve by Dec. 6.
The recommendation came from the incident management team on the Six Nations Emergency Control Group, which was created last year to respond to the pandemic.
Travis Anderson, director of federal schools, said teachers would use the Dec. 3 professional activity to prep for a full re-opening on Dec. 6, when the entire student population begins attending classes together again.
Currently, alternating cohorts of students attend schools, with days off in between, to allow for less densely-packed classrooms.
“The plan is to bring them all back together,” said Anderson.
The re-opening plan has a number of Covid-safety protocols in place, including continued masking, dividers during lunch and close-proximity teaching, and promoting physical distancing wherever possible.
There will also be a continued “online academy” for those who choose to continue to learn remotely.
Some restrictions have already been relaxed this year, including re-opening school gyms to make school “more enjoyable” for the kids.
There are mask breaks throughout the day but under the new plan, certain restrictions will still remain in place: no school sports, no assemblies, and no field trips.
“We’re trying to lessen some of those restrictions with the guidance from Ohsweken Public Health,” said Anderson.
They’ll also continue outdoor learning as much as possible and continue allowing only essential staff into the schools.
There is also a continued focus on handwashing procedures and guidelines.
A new “wellness” agreement will have to be signed by parents with the re-opening plan.
Not all students went back to school this past September, after being closed for a year and a half. About eight per cent of students still learn remotely instead of attending school.
There has also been no evidence of community spread of Covid from students attending Six Nations schools, said Anderson.
What’s more, the majority of staff (97 per cent) are double vaccinated.
Anderson said the safety measures currently in place are working.
“We feel it’s safe and now is the time to increase capacity.”
Public health nurse Lacey VanEvery said there hasn’t been a case of transmission within the schools yet.
“I’m not saying that’s not going to happen. We have a population that is currently unvaccinated and the risk of transmission with this Delta variant is higher.”
The word “outbreak” doesn’t mean the school has to close down, she said, and it just signals that public health needs to keep an eye on the location.
When it comes to entirely shutting down a school, she said, “That is a decision that will not be taken lightly. We really don’t want to get into a situation of a school closure if we don’t have to. We’re still learning a lot with Covid.”
She said vaccinations for those aged five to 11, which Health Canada approved in late November 19, is “an added layer of protection. We are working to offer clinics to this age population.”
Clinics for youth vaccinations on Six Nations opened on Nov. 26, with another one scheduled for Dec. 3.
“We understand there’s some hesitation for vaccinations in this age population because it is a younger population,” said VanEvery. “We feel that vaccinations and what we’re seeing in the adult population…it’s lessening the severity of the illness. They are essentially working. There’s a lot of good data for those in this age population.”
At least one councillor had concerns with the re-opening, citing a recent spike in positive cases on Six Nations.
“In looking at our numbers, I’m very concerned,” said Coun. Helen Miller. “We have 43 cases and there’s 115 in isolation. It seems our numbers are starting to climb again. If the numbers keep climbing, are the schools going to still keep opening?”
She also said the community seems to be flouting Covid safety precautions.
“People are having big birthday parties and buck and does,” she said, adding that she believes large gatherings taking place could be why the numbers are climbing so high again.
“There really needs to be strong messaging to get the community to take this seriously,” said VanEvery. “We have been met with some resistance from some community members. We’re not quite over it. We still have a ways to go. You gotta take the symptoms seriously. It’s the gathering that are getting us in hot water right now. You just never know who could be a carrier there. I think everybody is just at their wit’s end with this pandemic.”
Coun. Wendy Johnson said she was “extremely frustrated” with the conversation during the council meeting.
She said that the responsibility for decisions regarding Six Nations schools lies with the federal government.
Her second complaint was regarding children and mental health. Being at home on the Internet results in mental health issues, she said.
“Kids are falling behind.”
She also said she was shocked there was no vaccine strategy in the plan.
“Why isn’t that a part of the plan? There will always be a portion of the community that doesn’t want vaccines and that’s fine; that’s their choice. But we have to make sure that it’s accessible.”
Currently, less than 50 per cent of the community has received both shots of one of the Covid vaccines.
Coun. Johnson said the solution lies in vaccinations.
“It comes down to vaccinations. That’s what’s really going to help us. You look at any study around the world, it’s vaccinations. That’s where our concentration has to be.”
Council did not respond to questions from the Two Row Times regarding the new Omicron variant or raising its Covid alert level in light of the recent spike in cases.