Lisa Gannett is a philosopher of science working at Saint Mary’s University.
With the low incidence of COVID-19 cases in Nova Scotia that we have currently, we are in the fortunate — and from the perspective of many other jurisdictions, enviable — position of being able to get our pre-primary, elementary, junior high, and high school students back into the classroom, where we know they learn best.
Collectively, as a province, we should be prepared to do all we can to get them there and keep them there. A second wave of the pandemic is not inevitable. It is a product of what we do and fail to do.
In my non-professional life, I am a community sport coach. Because of the pandemic, we did things differently this summer. We kept families and friends together in making up groups of eight children and two coaches for weekly practices. We lent out all the necessary gear for the duration of the program rather than at each practice. We played tag with pool noodles. We placed hula hoops on the grass to keep children two+ metres apart during instruction. We sanitized equipment between groups. We tried to do even more than what Public Health requires, so that families with members at greater risk of complications associated with COVID-19 could participate safely.
I did not anticipate that the province’s plans for reopening schools would deviate so far from the public health directives that served as the framework for the plans the province required of sport organizations for the return to play.
In a sports activity, apart from incidental contact, only in groups of 10 or fewer are participants allowed to be within two metres of each other, and these groups are expected to remain as constant as possible over the season. But in a high school, over the course of a day, a student might find themself placed in four entirely different groups of 30, seated in classrooms within two metres of other students, for sustained periods of 75 minutes. A teacher could be placed within two metres of upwards of 100 students each day.
For a sports event, provided they can remain at least two metres apart, up to 50 participants are able to gather on a field of play, with an additional maximum 150 spectators at an indoor venue, provided they can physically distance and do not exceed 50% capacity. And yet, we have high schools in the province with more than 1,500 students, with buildings at more than 100% capacity, where physical distancing, in and out of the classroom, is impossible.
In a recent press briefing, Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health, was asked about the evident inconsistency between return-to-school and return-to-play plans. Strang responded by saying that risks need to be weighed differently in different situations, and school is of greater relative importance than community sport in children’s lives. Thus, the education system has its own, sector-specific, regulations.
I agree with Strang that even though the benefits of community sport are many, school is far more important, not just in the lives of children and the adults they become but for the well-being of society.
I also agree that risk assessment depends on context: in my professional life as a historian and philosopher of science, I work to identify ways in which theoretical assumptions, practical goals, and social, cultural, and economic values shape the content of scientific knowledge. Most historians and philosophers of science agree that such assumptions, goals, and values are embedded in science. Public health is an obvious case.
Contact tracing is important; prevention is better
Contact tracing is an important public health goal. With contact tracing, public health officials can notify people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 and advise them to monitor for symptoms, self-isolate, and get tested as necessary. Prompt and efficient contact tracing allows COVID-19 outbreaks to be limited and contained.
Schools are pretty much ideal sites for contact tracing. Even in high schools of more than 1,500 students, over the course of a semester, students are assigned to specific classes, with specific teachers, and meet in specific rooms, on specific days, at specific times. Hallway travel might be considered as involving momentary contact that is incidental for contact tracing, while teachers could be required to resurrect seating charts from education’s distant past to allow contact tracers to accurately identify close contacts of any students who test positive for COVID-19. Even better, schools are required to keep careful and detailed attendance records and usually have up-to-date phone numbers and email addresses for parents and guardians.
But keeping Nova Scotians healthy by preventing the spread of COVID-19 from the get-go is arguably an even more important public health goal, in fact, public health’s overarching goal. And for this goal, unlike contact tracing, it matters how big schools are, what class sizes are, and whether physical distancing is possible.
Early in the pandemic, the premier told us to “stay the blazes home.” Since then, we have progressed from exclusive one-household bubbles to exclusive two-household bubbles to non-exclusive social groupings of a maximum of 10 people not required to physically distance. Congregating in outdoor spaces is strongly recommended. And while wearing masks is believed to decrease the risk of transmitting COVID-19 in poorly ventilated indoor spaces and situations where physical distancing cannot be maintained, we accept that we are individually and collectively safest when we limit the number of people with whom we interact on an ongoing or prolonged basis within a distance less than two metres.
This summer has been somewhat of a reprieve from COVID. With all the wonderfully sunny days, we are experiencing a greater ease in moving about in public spaces, resuming many of our regular activities, and enjoying getting together with family and friends. If we are following public health directives, each activity or get-together includes no more than nine of our family members, friends, or acquaintances if we are not physically distancing. Across all our activities and get-togethers, the total number of social contacts with whom we don’t maintain two metres of separation is likely much greater than this. But at no point have we been told by Strang how many social contacts is reasonable and how many is too many, other than “people shouldn’t gather in random or spontaneous groups.”
Schools are nexuses of social networks
If the goal is to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19 in the province, there must be some range of numbers of social contacts that is reasonable and some range of numbers that is too many. Contemplating such a limit makes some sense of Strang’s decision to treat school and community sport differently, in allowing class sizes that are far in excess of the group maximum of 10 without physical distancing for sports activities and school sizes that are far in excess of the group maximum of 200 with physical distancing and no more than half-full venues for indoor sports events. Since school is more important than community sport, presumably, it is better to use up a greater proportion of those social contacts for classmates and teachers than teammates and coaches.
The problem is that while we have a more-or-less countable number of social contacts as individuals, we are mere nodes in vast, complicated, and interconnected social networks. Your contacts are my contacts, and my contacts are your contacts. The contacts of your contacts are my contacts, and the contacts of my contacts are your contacts. Etc. Public health interventions should not just limit the total number of social contacts a given individual has but the reach of a given social network, for example, by encouraging if not exclusive groups (Ontario’s “circle of 10”), then significantly overlapping groups.
Schools were closed and remained closed after March Break for the very reason that they constitute nexuses at which myriad social networks intersect within and across communities. And yet, on September 8th, schools are reopening, as if the shutdown never happened, as if we’re not in the midst of a global pandemic. Whatever the optimum ranges might be for numbers of social contacts and reaches of social networks, they surely cannot be so high as to justify what Nova Scotia’s Back to School Plan will generate. At Citadel High, I am told that 1,600 students will be returning en masse to a school built for 1,300 students.
Come September, although community sport organizations such as mine will continue to do our part to prevent COVID-19 by limiting group sizes to 10 and keeping groups constant for the duration of the program, participants come to us from schools across the HRM, and, in effect, their social contacts come with them. All of us are vulnerable to what happens in schools.
Lack of clarity
Zach Churchill, the education minister, seeks to reassure Nova Scotians that “we can get our kids back to school … in a way that creates a high level of safety for everybody” by continuing “to follow Public Health advice and follow the science around COVID-19.”
The pandemic response in this province, led by Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Strang, has been characterized by the paternalism and top-down exercise of authority exhibited in Churchill’s reassurances. Few efforts are made to win the public’s trust by providing education about the relevant scientific issues or clarity about the goals behind the public health advice.
Nova Scotians came together to flatten and then bend the curve. Whether there is or is not a second wave of COVID-19 is up to us. We deserve a return-to-school plan driven by the public health goal of keeping us healthy by preventing the spread of COVID-19, not just the goal of tracing contacts once outbreaks occur. The province cannot afford the disruption of another shutdown.
The government needs to work with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and return to earlier plans, which were to reduce class sizes in P–9 and have high school students attend class on a rotating basis.
Reduced class sizes make cohorting and/or physical distancing possible. Younger children might be best served by cohorting in small groups that do not require physical distancing or masks. Older children might be best served by maintaining physical distancing in the classroom given that their social networks are larger. The crush of bodies in high schools can be averted by having half the students come to school on Mondays and Wednesdays and the other half on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with Fridays set aside for teachers’ preparation time, staff meetings, and students needing extra help.
Having accepted with Strang the important role of public education in the lives of children and their families and for society at large, we should not be led away from but toward a return-to-school plan that more closely resembles return-to-play plans in adhering to public health directives about group size limits and physical distancing.
Every child in this province must be able to return to school and not just be safe but thrive. This includes children with special needs and children who are, or have family members, at increased risk of complications arising from COVID-19.
Reduced class sizes will help schools create as much normalcy as possible in classrooms and help teachers address gaps in learning that arose because of the shutdown during the spring, whether at the grade level or for individual students.
Physical distancing will help prevent a return to full-time remote learning for Grades 9 to 12, which is effective for very few if any students. The province’s so-called plan throws students into overcrowded schools and overflowing classrooms and then throws them back home once predictable outbreaks occur.
Having recognized the work done by teachers is essential for society, we need to do all we can to support them in the classroom in this school year of COVID-19 and not expect them to place their own lives and the lives of their family members at risk.
Nova Scotia’s Back to School Plan is not a plan. It is an abdication of responsibility by the government and opens the door to the resurgence of COVID-19 in the province.