School’s out: Nunavut closes schools facing mounting COVID-19 concerns

Nunavut has not had a single positive test for COVID-19, and the territorial government announced today that all grade schools and daycares will close starting Tuesday and remain that way for three weeks.

Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s chief public health officer, made the announcement on Monday, flanked by Premier Joe Savikataaq, Education Minister David Joanasie and Health Minister George Hickes.

“[We are] closing schools throughout the territory for the next three weeks,” explained Dr. Patterson. “This isn’t something that we took lightly. We understand that this will have a significant impact on many Nunavummiut.”

“Two weeks and under is too short of a timeframe to make a difference in an outbreak like this. The time for incubation is up to 14 days.”

There have been no positive results to date, and the Health Department is waiting on approximately 30 outstanding COVID-19 tests to be completed.

“In order to reduce the chance of transmission in communities, it was felt that this was the appropriate step,” said Dr. Patterson.

“I think at this point, it is very likely that COVID-19 will arrive. COVID-19 is present in all 10 provinces in Canada. I think we have to prepare for the fact that COVID-19 will arrive,” predicted Dr. Patterson.

He also had a warning for Nunavut parents about activities for the next three weeks.

“This should be viewed as being very different from spring break. This is a chance to create and enhance social distancing and minimize the chance of that if or when COVID-19 arrives, it is transported to multiple households.”

One educational institution that will remain open is Nunavut Arctic College, Nunavut’s post-secondary school, with campuses territory wide.

“The rationale for not closing Nunavut Arctic College is that the classes are smaller, the students are older and more mature and so we’ll have an easier time maintaining social distancing and limiting transmission that way,” explained Dr. Patterson, adding “the other factor is that the impacts of closing Nunavut Arctic College for a lengthy duration are greater. There are fourth year students set to finish a degree program with a licence, and their skills are needed.”

(From left to right are Health Minister George Hickes, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson, Premier Joe Savikataaq, and Education Minister David Joanasie. Photo: Kent Driscoll/APTN)

If community transmission – people in Nunavut infecting other people in Nunavut with COVID-19 – starts to happen, the Health Department says they will be taking another look at the Nunavut Arctic College decision.

Nunavut has the highest food insecurity rate in the country. Seven in 10 Inuit households in Nunavut go hungry at some point of the year.

Many of Nunavut’s schools offer lunch programs and have foodbanks for students. When asked about those hungry students, Education Minister David Joanasie didn’t have much to offer, saying “Were just focusing on announcing the school closures, as well as all the daycare facilities territory wide. At this point, we haven’t dived into any details around food programming. It is something that is on table if there are volunteers willing to provide that service.”

Even with volunteers, keeping those programs running without access to school kitchens will be a huge challenge.

“The school facility itself, we don’t want staff to go in and out, and we’re trying to put in cleaning measures,” said Joanasie.

“This is something we have to look at better at the community level. If it can be done, we’ll see how we can do that.”

After the initial three weeks, health officials will review the school closures every two weeks. Infection rates, community transmission, and what is happening in other parts of Canada are all factors in that decision.

“We know, more likely than not, that COVID-19 will come into Nunavut, and we just want to be prepared for it,” said Premier Savikataaq.

“Some of the stuff we should do to mitigate it is to wash our hands, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds long. When you cough, cough into your elbow. If you feel sick, stay at home. Self isolation. Call your nursing station and ask for medical assessment.”

Premier Savikataaq urged Nunavummiut to follow social distancing guidelines, with some specific for Inuit. A kunik is a sharp inhalalation of air through the nose, from close to another person’s nose and mouth (when people mistakenly say Inuit kiss by rubbing noses, this is what they are trying to describe).

The premier says to knock that off for a while.

“The part that’s going to be very hard – because its kind off ingrained in us, because Nunavummiut are friendly. Don’t shake hands, don’t hug, and don’t kiss or kunik the babies,” explained Savikataaq.

The Government of Nunavut is going to begin a daily briefing at 3:00 p.m. EST, because keeping with the constantly changing implications of COVID-19 is a moving target.

“Everything is evolving,” said Premier Savikataaq. “Things are changing so rapidly that we’re working on things as they come.”

Nunavut’s parents are facing at least three weeks of having their children home from school, but home doesn’t always mean in the house.

According to the Chief Public Health Officer, it is OK for groups of kids to get together outside.

“There is greatly reduced risk, or no risk of transmission outdoors, especially when the sun is out with the ultraviolet light. Things like outdoor hockey games, if its warm enough going out on the land, we would support all of those. Especially in relatively smaller groups.”

Video Journalist / Iqaluit

Kent has been APTN’s Nunavut correspondent since 2007. In that time he has closely covered Inuit issues, including devolution and the controversial Nutrition North food subsidy. He has also worked for CKIQ-FM in Iqaluit and as a reporter for Nunavut News North.