Two young children, a boy and a girl, wearing backpacks and masks stand in a classroom.
Photo: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

The head of the union representing the province’s teachers says while members appear evenly split over the removal of mandatory masking in schools, there are concerns teachers will bear the brunt of family’s frustrations over the province’s decision.

“You can strongly recommend (masking), but as soon as you remove the word mandatory, I think we’re in for some tough, tough days of argument with people that want to do one thing or the other,” Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) president Paul Wozney said in an interview Thursday afternoon.

“I don’t envy teachers that kind of conflict at this point. They’re just trying to get kids through to the end as well as can be done… They are exhausted, they are burnt out, they have long run on fumes, and they’re pushing the car to the finish line, they’re not even driving anymore.”

On Thursday morning, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development issued a media release announcing the removal of the mask requirement in public schools as of Tuesday, May 24.

Minister Becky Druhan said masks “will continue to be recommended” and those choosing to continue wearing them will be supported. Druhan also said the approaching warmer weather means classes can spend more time outdoors. That, combined with the province’s health and school attendance data improving, “now is the time to make masks optional in schools.”

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve worked closely with public health and taken steps to keep staff and students safe,” Druhan said in the release. “We strongly encourage students and staff to continue to wear masks, and we will continue to support staff and students as well as continue to supply masks and hand sanitizer.”

Druhan also noted that all provinces in Canada have removed school mask mandates.

In a message to families published on its website Thursday morning, the province’s Acadian/francophone school board wrote that wearing a mask remains “strongly recommended” indoors when social distancing is not possible. Wozney said he’s seen similar messaging coming from schools within the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE).

Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney. Photo: Contributed

Wozney said because it’s such a polarizing issue, he’s pleading with people to direct any frustrations over the masking decision to their MLAs and to the province.

“We know how deeply divided the views are about masking in the community at large, we know that there are going to be parents whose students are immunocompromised, or maybe the parents at home are immunocompromised, and they’re going to be desperate for masking to continue as often and as robustly as possible on a self-interest basis, like they’re worried about getting sick and dying,” Wozney said.

“We’re concerned in some regard about the potential for conflict over recommended masking because anytime something becomes an option and grounds for debate, classrooms can become very polarized places. This is my plea to the people of Nova Scotia, that if you have feelings one way or the other, the people who work with your students at school are not responsible for the decision and please do not direct your displeasure to them.”

Wozney said COVID-19 has made for yet another difficult school year, compounded by a lack of substitute teachers. While there is a heightened sense of concern that high school students ⁠— particularly those set to graduate ⁠— may struggle if infections rise again due to the removal of the mask mandate, Wozney said there’s a sense of resignation that the time has come to remove masks and teachers must “make the best of it.”

“Schools have remained open physically, but schools have not been their best selves in quite some time in terms of when you have a consistent presence in the classroom in front of a group of learners that know them and understand how to support them,” Wozney said.

“I think we’re all going to wait now with bated breath in hopes that we don’t have a COVID explosion in schools that complicates the end of an already difficult year.”

Update:

Late Thursday afternoon, IWK Health Centre pediatrician Dr. Joanna Holland shared a Twitter thread about the province’s decision to remove mandatory masking in the province’s public schools, stating “you may think this indicates that COVID is not having an impact on kids and that hospitals are not under stress. That is not the case.”

Start of Thursday afternoon’s Twitter thread by pediatrician Dr. Joanna Holland.

Holland said they’re seeing “exceptionally high numbers of sick children” in the IWK’s inpatient unit. While some patients have COVID infections, others have post-COVID syndromes like MISC-C (multi system inflammatory syndrome), and “a lot” are presenting with other respiratory viruses.

“There are many more kids in the Emergency Department who need to be seen but not admitted to hospital. Patients are also being transferred to us from elsewhere in the Maritimes where it is also busy,” Holland wrote.

“This volume of patients is very unusual for late May. It feels more like January. Except, it feels worse, because in addition to patient volume we continue to deal with staff shortages due to COVID infections and exposures.”

Holland said several of her patients have had surgeries postponed more than once. Recognizing that viruses are spread in many community settings and that schools aren’t the “driver,” Holland added that schools they were the last remaining place where masks were required to protect children and staff. She said she’s “doubtful” this decision will improve the situation.

“Public Health continues to RECOMMEND that masks be worn in indoor places, including schools. Kids deserve to return to their normal routines. I am not restricting my own kids’ activities, but they are wearing masks indoors. Masks are a protection, not a restriction,” Holland wrote.

“Finally, a reminder that while most children have mild symptoms from COVID-19 infection, vaccination reduces the risk of more severe symptoms from acute infection AND reduces the risk of MISC-C.”


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Yvette d'Entremont

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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