Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney

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As COVID-19 case numbers climb, and in light of eight cases identified in HRM schools over 72 hours, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) is calling on the provincial government to take “urgent action” to keep schools safe.

“We’ve just seen how variants have exploded like bombs in places like Ontario and out west. We’ve just seen what happens when we leave schools the way that they are right now and don’t adjust safety protocols,” NSTU president Paul Wozney said in an interview. 

“People are at work terrified. They’re really in survival mode, and it’s having an impact on how well people feel.”

In a media release Thursday morning, the NSTU said it’s demanding that school safety protocols across the province be re-evaluated and enhanced immediately to protect students, teachers, and staff from the more infectious COVID-19 variants. Wozney said the emergence of more virulent strains have put people “on edge.” 

He’s fielding many calls from parents asking about the absentee rate for students and wondering if staff are staying home due to COVID-19 concerns. Wozney believes as case counts climb, more people are losing confidence with the current way COVID-19 is being dealt with in schools and are opting to keep their children home. 

“We’ve operated so far with a back to school plan that hasn’t been re-evaluated, even though when we talk about epidemiology, we’re not dealing with the same virus that we were dealing with months ago,” Wozney said. 

“It’s a very different beast that we’re fighting now. It’s far more contagious, and I guess where I’m really hearing parents’ anxiety ratchet up is we know that these variants of concern don’t discriminate between children and adults. They hit kids just as hard, not just in terms of getting it, but the health outcomes for kids are no less significant than they are for adults.”

Wozney said this has created an increased level of urgency, and people are now looking to public health, government, and education officials to “proactively re-evaluate and assess whether or not the current measures are enough to keep people safe in the current mode of learning.”

The union is also asking the provincial government to prioritize vaccines for teachers and school staff, increase masking guidelines, and ensure proper physical distancing in schools. 

“There’s no masking at all for children in Grades P to 3, so P to 3 teachers have been in environments where there’s no physical distancing, and kids are on top of you all day every day,” Wozney said.

Wozney said the eight cases identified in schools over the past 72 hours — seven of which are in Dartmouth and surrounding communities — are concerning. He believes there may need to be a “wider shift” where an entire community of schools is closed as a circuit breaker to stop the virus from spreading. He said teachers and families want clarity on what would trigger a move to a virtual or other form of learning so families can make plans with some degree of notice. 

“If things are getting hot, how close are we to the level of hotness that will precipitate a shift? And we advocate for that really as much for parents and families as we did for teachers,” he said.

“Families simply can’t make that pivot (children being home) for a prolonged period with little notice, and so that’s a big piece. We think public health needs to be proactive in communicating what level will really signal the need to move to something else.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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