Bicentennial School in Dartmouth closed abruptly in the spring because of the pandemic. Photo: Halifax Examiner

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More than 100 parents from across the province have penned an open letter to Premier Stephen McNeil highlighting what they call a “failure to put children and their right to education” at the centre of Nova Scotia’s pandemic response. 

The group, Parents for a Pandemic Education Plan, planned to send the letter to the premier on Monday. They outline four key concerns, the first being that the government has not yet publicly released a plan with details of what the return to public schools will look like in September. 

Return to school plans have already been released in the other Atlantic provinces. Last week, a spokesperson for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development reiterated to the Halifax Examiner what the department has been saying for weeks — that the province’s plan will be released “by the end of July.”

Erica Baker is one of more than 100 concerned parents who penned a letter to Premier Stephen McNeil about the pandemic’s impact on education and the fact no plan has been presented yet for the fall.

“The risks of an increase in mental health problems and learning problems are much higher than the risks of going back to school in Nova Scotia right now,” said Erica Baker, a clinical neuropsychologist and concerned parent. 

“That may change in three weeks if there are increases in cases, but right now given that we’ve got this low community transmission, our best bet is to go back to school.”

Baker is a parent of three public school students spanning the elementary, junior high, and high school systems. She also works with children who have learning disabilities. 

“I am very aware of what the specific challenges are with respect to learning and how children learn and I didn’t want to sit back,” she said in an interview on Monday.

Last month, Baker and a group of like-minded parents with relevant expertise began discussing how to best express their concerns and offer suggestions to facilitate a safe return to school.

In addition, they wanted to ensure implementation of a quality and well-supported remote learning plan for students should another wave of COVID-19 make in-person classes impossible. 

Last week, a handful of those parents met with Department of Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Zach Churchill. Baker said while they were grateful he took the time to listen to their concerns, he didn’t provide them with any answers. 

That’s when they forged ahead with the creation of a website to share those concerns, their open letter to the premier, a survey for parents with children in the Nova Scotia public school system, and a list of resources. 

“Ideally we would have something [a plan] before the end of July. We also wanted to know if we are going to have an opportunity to have input into the plan,” Baker said of their meeting with Churchill.

“We weren’t getting solid answers and we wanted to be able to make sure that parents who wanted to share something had a chance to do that.”

Remote learning was ‘chaos’

Baker strongly believes the provincial government’s initiatives to help flatten the curve were necessary to safeguard our physical health. She said the province’s re-opening has gone well thus far because there were plans in place for employees, employers, clients, and customers who felt safe entering those workplaces. 

“Now it’s time to turn our attention to schools. We need as much time as possible in order to look at those plans and really figure out what needs to be done,” she said, adding a regional lens needs to be a key aspect of any plan.

“If you had an outbreak in Halifax, that shouldn’t mean that Cape Breton has to shut down.”

Another concern outlined in the letter to the premier was the quality of the remote learning experience from March to June. Baker said it simply didn’t work, noting that even the most high-achieving students struggled. She said this is due in part because the executive functions in the frontal lobe of the brain don’t fully develop until people are anywhere from 18 to 25. 

“They are responsible for control of behaviour, so the executive functions are what’s needed in somebody in order to plan, to organize, to get started, to finish tasks, to follow through, to switch back and forth, to adapt to new changes, to regulate emotions,” Baker explained. 

“That is why we rely so heavily on teachers, because the teachers play the role of executive functioning for our kids. The teachers are the people who help us to get started, who help us to organize and make sure that we’re getting the things done.”

Stress and anxiety also interfere with executive functions, and most families were faced with both due to COVID-19. Baker said for children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder who already struggle with executive function, the online learning model was particularly problematic. 

“When you look at this model for anybody who has ADHD, or learning disabilities, autism, any child who has special learning needs, you’re going to run into major, major complications,” Baker said.

She described the online learning situation from March to June as “chaos,” adding that it’s necessary for someone to personally check in with students face-to-face, not simply via email. She said if a second wave of the virus makes remote learning a necessity, it could be improved if teachers had better support. That could include assistants to help personally check in with students and access to child care for teachers so they can effectively do their jobs. 

More than 130 parents have already filled out the group’s online survey seeking their input on the province’s pandemic education. Baker said the majority who’ve responded have expressing anxiety about the possibility of a repeat of the March to June remote learning experience.

“A lot of people are saying that the home learning was just too challenging both for the kids and for the parents,” she said. “They’re saying clearly there was not enough teacher-led learning.”

Lack of consistency across the board

Dartmouth resident Derek Simon also signed the letter. In addition to the quality of remote learning and no released plan, the parents are also expressing concerns the economy can’t recover when children aren’t in school. 

It also notes parents are “deeply troubled” by the decision to allow visitors from the US and provinces outside the Atlantic region “with minimal scrutiny and enforcement.”

Parents say they’re demanding answers to their questions now — not in three weeks. Citing the need for “innovative policy and a major infusion of resources,” the parents state in their letter that the return to school requires the acquisition and repurposing of space, employment of more teachers and staff to act as academic coaches when children aren’t in a classroom, and help for stringent cleaning and other COVID-19 related requirements.

Simon’s children are entering Grades 2 and 4. Like many parents, he and his wife have been juggling the responsibilities of teaching, child care, and full time work.

“We just haven’t been happy with some of the inconsistencies and the level of support provided by the school system,” Simon said. “I feel like there’s a lack of consistency across the board, and I think there’s a lack of direction coming from the top in terms of what was required for the at-home learning.

Simon has heard from many parents about the inconsistency in students’ workloads and their access to teachers, sometimes within the same school. He believes if online learning is going to be a component of the province’s plan, it needs to clearly define what they expect from teachers, students and parents. 

“My mother was a teacher and I understand it’s a challenging profession and they were kind of thrown into a situation where they didn’t have much time to get their stuff out of the classroom and have to come up with a whole new lesson plan basically from scratch using new mediums,” Simon said. 

“I’m very sympathetic to that situation…That being said, we’re four months out from when the situation started, we’re less than two months from the fall, and we’ve got to have a better plan in place as to what’s going to happen in September.”

Another key issue for Simon is ensuring equitable access to education. He described access to reliable internet and devices for online learning as a “big stumbling block” for many Nova Scotia families over the last few months. 

“We’re going to likely have at least a partially online component and we may get hit with a second wave where the kids get sent home again,” Simon said. 

“We need to know that they have addressed that equity issue and addressed that gap to make sure that kids have access to internet and that kids have access to the devices they need to do the at-home learning.”

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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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