A woman with long dark blonde hair and wearing a beige blazer over a black top sits at a dark wooden desk and in front of a lineup of Nova Scotia flags
Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development Becky Druhan. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

With only two weeks left before kids head back to school, the province announced on Wednesday its “return to normal” plan for back to class. The Department of Education is not requiring that students, teachers, or staff wear masks, and it will be up to the students if they want to wear a mask on the bus or in the classroom.

Education Minister Becky Druhan said she is “following the advice of Public Health,” which has not changed since last May when officials said wearing masks in indoor spaces is “strongly recommended” to prevent the spread of the airborne and highly transmissible Omicron variants of COVID-19. Despite that, the Department of Education made a decision to drop mandatory masking provisions with less than a month left in the school year.

Druhan is sticking to that decision and she said if the situation changes, the mask mandate for inside schools will be revisited. Masks will be provided at schools for those who choose to wear them.

Meanwhile, epidemiologists and public health officials across the country have been consistent in their messaging that the best way to avoid spreading COVID-19 and reducing staff shortages at hospitals is to keep vaccinations up to date and by wearing masks when inside with others. Good ventilation helps, too.

Some epidemiologists are warning the return to school will coincide with higher levels of virus circulating in the community as people spend more time together inside.

Druhan referred all questions about ventilation upgrades to the regional centres for education. Asked if elementary schools would be hosting vaccination clinics to increase the number of students who have received a second dose, the minister referred the question to Public Health. Opposition leaders said many parents and teachers are uneasy about the decision-making rationale at the Department of Education, especially considering the fact many of the universities in the province are requiring their students and professors to mask up indoors.

“We have complete contradiction on what the advice from Public Health is to this government”, said Liberal leader Zach Churchill. “I’ve heard both the premier and the minister of education say they are taking advice from Public Health. And then we heard from universities, which are bringing in masking protocols, that they are taking advice from Public Health. So, who is taking advice from Public Health here?”

Both the Liberal leader and NDP leader said they want to hear directly from Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Strang or Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr. Shelley Deeks on what advice they are currently providing the Department of Education.

A woman with short dark curly hair and wearing a dark sleeveless dress stands in front of several microphones
NDP leader Claudia Chender. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

“We know nearly all post-secondary institutions have chosen to install more public health measures (mandatory masking indoors ),” said Claudia Chender, NDP leader and MLA for Dartmouth South. “We also know less than half of elementary students have received their full series of vaccines (two doses) and there is very little encouragement in that regard. What we see now is a government that says ‘you are on your own’ and if you are concerned, that’s too bad for you. And that’s very concerning.”

Ryan Lutes, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said he was concerned about the low uptake of vaccination in students.

“Vaccination remains a significant protection, and Public Health should be exploring every option to get more shots in arms, including school vaccination clinics,” Lutes said in an email to the Examiner.

“We also have a major concern that teachers and school staff members under 50 years old do not have access to their fourth booster dose, unlike many other provinces. To make our schools as resilient as possible, it’s critical that our educators are able to access the best vaccine protection.”

Public versus private health care

A man with salt and pepper hair and wearing a dark suit with blue tie sits at a desk in front of a lineup of Nova Scotian flags.
Premier Tim Houston. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

“We need a health care system that’s there for Nova Scotians when they need it. It’s my personal view health care should be inside a public system,” Premier Tim Houston told reporters during a scrum following today’s cabinet meeting, the first in a month and just a couple of days after Houston met with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who is contracting out more medical care to the private sector.

“We are committed to strengthening the public system for sure,” Houston said. “There won’t be a time under my tenure as premier where Nova Scotians won’t need to use anything other than their MSI card to pay for health care. I’m not interested in Nova Scotians using their credit card to pay for health care.”

Despite those strong reassurances, NDP leader Claudia Chender is not convinced.

“Right now there are Nova Scotians concerned about their health who can use their credit card to pay to access a private clinic for basic health needs,” Chender said. “Mostly these services are provided by nurses.” (Examples include ultrasounds, MRIs, mammograms, and other diagnostic tests).

“We know people who are waiting hours to get an answer from a telehealth nurse at 811 and for those who can afford to go private, it’s understandable they will use that credit card while other Nova Scotians don’t have a choice, which creates a two-tier health system.”

Houston dismissed the idea that clinics such as Scotia Surgery — which has been around for 14 years doing orthopedic day surgery — and another private clinic that opened in Dartmouth this month could put the province on a so-called slippery slope.

“I’m not concerned about a slippery slope because there is no slope in Nova Scotia,” the premier said.

Both Opposition leaders argued that with nurses now in such short supply, some emergency departments are closing often, and any expansion of private health care would impact staffing in the publicly run system.

“We have a labour shortage in health care right now,” Churchill said. “ If you create a parallel private health care system, I think that will siphon people out of the public system. And that means when you go to the ER for an emergency, there may be fewer people to take care of you.”

More vaccination news

Health Minister Michelle Thompson said there are no plans at this time to hold vaccination clinics for students inside public schools. Thompson said parents can make an appointment at a pharmacy to get their children vaccinated. That’s true, but so far the uptake among children aged five to 11 years has stalled at 45%, a number that suggests many families are simply too busy or distracted to follow through on organizing inoculations for their kids.

Nova Scotia is one of only four Canadian provinces that has followed the advice of National Committee on Immunization to hold off on making a fourth dose or second booster shot available to people under the age of 50. That’s because new vaccines that are supposed to be more effective against Omicron and the B.1 variant will soon be available. How effective they are against the current B.5 and B.6 mutations is unknown.

Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Officer of Public Health, said the Moderna vaccine, adapted to fight Omicron, could be available within two weeks. That vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine are being evaluated by Health Canada right now.

Health Minister Michelle Thompson was asked about the province’s plan to roll out the fourth dose, and whether all adults would be eligible to receive it. Thompson said a plan is being developed and Nova Scotians would hear more about the specifics when that plan is ready. When it comes to Public Health, this government provides information only on a “need-to-know” basis.

Ditto for any plan to deal with the backlog of 24,000 people waiting for surgery despite federal funding made available last March. Reporters were told a plan is being developed. Houston was asked if he intended to make any changes to the health leadership team he appointed September 1 after the Progressive Conservatives were elected.

Karen Oldfield, the former CEO at the Port of Halifax and former chief of staff to PC Premier John Hamm, was named interim CEO of Nova Scotia Health, which operates hospitals and home care. Oldfield continues in that role. Janet Davidson, a nurse with decades of experience as a senior administrator in several provinces, took over as chair of Nova Scotia Health after Houston dismissed the board of directors.

The two additional team members include deputy Health minister Jeannine Lagassé and Dr. Kevin Orrell, CEO of the Office of Healthcare Professionals Recruitment. While Premier Houston continues to profess confidence in this team to deliver “change management,” the role of Dr. Orrell remains unclear ,more than a month after he apparently left the post, and Houston termed it “a developing situation.”

The Minister of Public Works, Kim Masland, was not available today to discuss how plans for the new and improved Halifax Infirmary are progressing. Late in the spring, after one of two approved bidders dropped out of the building competition citing the unpredictability of labour and rising cost of materials, the Houston government hit “pause” while it undertook a review of the scope of the new hospital, which will eventually replace many services provided at the crumbling Victoria General Hospital.

Colton LeBlanc, the minister responsible for the newly created Build Nova Scotia agency that oversees health care infrastructure, told reporters the government is “moving ahead with the original scope of the project” although modifications could be made later. The contractor, PCL, is being hired to design, finance, and build the hospital and its bid is expected “by late fall,” according to LeBlanc.

He wouldn’t provide a firmer timeline. LeBlanc could neither confirm nor deny the projected cost of the new hospital has risen from an earlier estimate of $2 billion to $3 billion. But he did confirm the previous estimate of $2 billion was no longer accurate.

Subscribe to the Halifax Examiner

We have many other subscription options available, or drop us a donation. Thanks!

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

Leave a comment

Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.