It may come as a shock to some students, teachers, and parents to learn that Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang, strongly recommended masks be worn in school whenever possible this fall. But he did.
I know he did because I watched his last press conference before schools reopened, and read the advice posted on Nova Scotia’s Public Health website.
Why is that? Why doesn’t everyone know what Strang and his colleagues have recommended?
To my mind, a big part of the problem is lack of good leadership on the part of Premier Tim Houston, Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development Becky Druhan, and other leaders in the education system itself.
To the dismay of many, Houston hasn’t acknowledged the existence of the pandemic, let alone offered condolences to families of the 522 Nova Scotians who have been lost to COVID, for many months now.
In fact, Houston’s last tweet on either topic is dated June 27, when the province announced vaccine boosters would be made available to those 50+ years of age — despite the fact Nova Scotia had some of the highest rates of infection, hospitalization, and death in the country this past summer, and nearly 80% of all COVID deaths in this province have occurred since he took office.
Given Houston’s stated unwillingness to be a “COVID premier,” his failure to amplify Strang’s recommendations on a regular basis has significantly undermined their implementation.
Education Minister Becky Druhan adopted a similar strategy. You have to go back to early July to find any reference to COVID on Druhan’s Facebook or Twitter feeds, despite the fact Nova Scotia’s Education Act makes her legally responsible to ensure kids’ classrooms are safe. She too has done nothing to ensure educators and students heed Strang’s warning and recommendation to mask up.
And what about leaders in the system itself?
Based on the number of disturbing stories I’ve heard from family and friends over the past week, it appears too many teachers, principals, and administrators aren’t just ignoring Strang’s advice, they’re actively pressuring students and parents to do the same.
Some teachers report they’ve even been discouraged from explaining to students why masks are still recommended. This is especially disappointing since educational leaders have the same duty as Druhan to keep kids safe.
Finally, what about the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union? Surely, it understands that Strang’s recommendation means its members face “unsafe working conditions” when the majority of teachers and students attend school maskless. Unfortunately, aside from very recently raising questions about the sufficiency of school ventilation, it appears the NSTU has done little, at least, publicly, to advocate for the health and safety of its members or encourage them to take the precautions necessary to reduce transmission and protect themselves, their families, and their communities.
In the past, parents and community members might have been able to bring concerns about such failures of leadership to their elected school board representatives, but school boards were disbanded by the previous government and Houston has taken no steps to re-establish them since taking office, despite promising to do so during the last election campaign. Currently, Regional Centres for Education are headed by civil servants who have little choice but to toe the Conservative party line.
Some still argue COVID poses less risk to kids and that, therefore, mitigation measures like masking aren’t needed. But that’s not Strang’s view. And it’s not the view of experts around the world who are increasingly raising alarms about the real and substantial danger the virus poses to kids’ health in the short and long term.
For example, a recent study found that between 5 and 10% of children diagnosed with COVID continued to have symptoms 90 days after infection. Earlier studies suggested a COVID infection significantly increased children’s risk of developing lifelong conditions, such as diabetes, cognitive impairment, and vascular issues.
Even if one accepts the notion that “most” kids will be okay despite being repeatedly infected, what about those we know are vulnerable? The failure of political and education leaders to support masking and other mitigation measures means those kids face real barriers to education.
There’s nothing “inclusive” about forcing students and their families to choose between kids attending school versus staying alive and healthy. Schools have a legal duty to accommodate persons with disabilities to the point of “undue hardship” but the Houston government has refused to direct them to implement even the least costly and intrusive measures (such as mandatory masking and air filters in classrooms) in order to fulfil that duty.
And what about vulnerable family members whose health is more at risk now that most mandatory mitigation measures have been dropped?
Such utter failures of leadership are deeply disturbing — more so because there seems so little we can do about them. There are no school boards to which parents and others can take their concerns. Houston has made it clear he doesn’t much care what the public thinks of his handling of the pandemic. The vast majority of letters, emails and telephone calls to his office go unacknowledged and unanswered.
The same is true of Druhan. And the directors of Nova Scotia’s Regional Centres of Education simply repeat the line that they’re “following the advice of Public Health,” which is demonstrably false given they’re ignoring (some might say actively contradicting) its most important advice.
So what would good leadership in education look like?
To begin, it would be based on sound science, good data and Strang’s advice. It would reflect a strong focus on keeping kids and teachers safe. It would encourage students to exercise personal responsibility to care for other people as well as themselves, and consider how their actions might affect their classmates, teachers, families, and communities. It would model responsible behaviour, inspire good citizenship, and applaud the courage and leadership of students and teachers who choose to do what’s necessary to limit infections — even in the face of mounting social pressure to act as if the pandemic is over.
Good leadership would consist of Houston, Druhan, principals, teachers, educational assistants, and administrators consistently wearing N95 masks indoors and encouraging students to do the same.
Good leadership would ensure students aren’t required to remove their masks in order to participate in mandatory school activities. It would require schools to test air quality in classrooms regularly and improve ventilation as needed. It would encourage and support students and teachers eating lunch outdoors or in well-ventilated spaces.
Good leadership would revise the curriculum to ensure all students understand the dangers posed by communicable diseases and the important role vaccines and other mitigations play in limiting their harmful impacts on individuals and communities.
Most importantly, good leadership would encourage students to show empathy towards others, and inspire them to do what they can to help limit transmission.
We truly are all in this together. It’s time Houston, Druhan, and leaders in our education sector began acting like it — by demonstrating personal responsibility and good leadership, and by supporting and encouraging students and their families to do the same.
Janice Brown is a retired lawyer who worked as a solicitor, senior policy analys, and cabinet adviser with the Nova Scotia government. She is also a member of the COVID action group PoPNS (Protect our Province NS). You can follow her on Twitter @PoP_NovaScotia