TORONTO -- While students in numerous regions across the country returned to school for the first time in person today since the pandemic shuttered schools, many wearing masks and clutching hand sanitizer, up north it’s a different story.

Some students in Nunavut, the only region in Canada with zero COVID-19 cases to date, have already been back in classrooms for a month.

“We’ve had a very good summer here,” David Joanasie, Nunavut’s minister of education said. “I’m happy to say that Nunavut has yet to report any cases of COVID in the territory as of yet.”

Summers in Nunavut are filled with many more hours of light than the rest of Canada -- even 24 hours of light in the territory’s most northern community -- so back-to-school season is always a little bit of an adjustment, according to Joanasie.

“This time it’s even more different with the pandemic,” he said. “We’ve been planning all throughout the summer and getting prepared as much as we can and working with our public health office at the department of health on the best way and the most healthiest and safest way to get our school staff and students back into the classroom.”

Like other regions in Canada, Nunavut closed their schools early in the pandemic, officially shuttering them on April 17.

But despite some false alarms, the territory has remained free of COVID-19 cases, making back-to-school plans a little less high-stakes than for the rest of the country.

“We’re kind of sheltered in a bubble, if you will, so that’s kind of helped us to date,” Joanasie said.

In some communities, students have already been back at school since the start of August.

It’s not completely business as usual at schools in Nunavut, even if there’s no COVID-19 case in the region. The territory’s back-to-school plan still stipulates that under Stage 1 (no COVID-19 transmission in communities), schools still need enhanced cleaning, physical contact should be avoided, group activities should be limited, and students should not share their food or drink with each other.

But while students in many parts of the country are heading back to school with mandatory masks and splitting their time between remote and in-class learning, students in Nunavut are not required to wear masks to school and must avoid physical contact where possible as long as there remains zero transmission of COVID-19 in their region.

Joanasie said the collaboration between the education department and health department has been key in the development and rollout of their back-to-school plan.

“I’ve got to give credit where credit is due,” he said. “It’s uncharted waters that we’re treading here.

“We want to assure parents and students that we’re doing the very best.”

Nunavut’s back-to-school plan, created in co-ordination with the region’s public health and released in late July, specified that all schools would physically reopen with in-school learning under Stage 1.

Stage 1 meant there were no COVID-19 outbreaks in the surrounding community, or neighbouring communities.

The territory has plans in place for how behaviour at school would have to change to be safer if COVID-19 surfaces in a community. But so far, Nunavut remains COVID-free. And kids get to have a school experience that is almost ordinary.

“It’s great to see the school’s reopened,” Joanasie said. “And I think the students, after five, six months of not being in classes, were a bit antsy to go back, to be honest.”