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

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With less than three weeks before schools reopen in Nova Scotia, union leaders representing public education system workers are calling on the province to provide answers to their concerns about the return to school plan. 

“What happens if a student gets sick? What happens if a worker gets sick? What are the processes and protocols that will protect workers and their families if there is an outbreak in the school where they work,” Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) president Jason MacLean asked during a media conference on Wednesday.  

“These are basic questions that as of today there are no clear answers for. What our schools need more than anything else is clear direction and guidance. They just can’t be told to be creative. They need specifics.”

During a July 22 media briefing, the province unveiled its long awaited back to school plan.  Three scenarios were mapped out in the plan: a full reopening, a blended model, and at home learning. Following an outcry from parents and teachers concerned that the plan didn’t require masks be worn in classrooms, the province announced on Friday they’ll be mandatory for students from Grades 4 through 12. 

On Wednesday morning, Nova Scotia Federation of Labour leaders representing teachers, nurses, education program assistants, teacher assistants, library staff, bus drivers, school secretaries, custodians and lunch monitors held a media conference in Dartmouth to outline their key concerns and demand for “specifics” about the plan.  The event was also live-streamed via Facebook.

In addition to what was described as a lack of transparency around roles, responsibilities, and protocols, they cited health and safety concerns. 

‘Sketchy’ on details

Describing the province’s plan as “sketchy” when it comes to details, CUPE Nova Scotia (Canadian Union of Public Employees) president Nan McFadgen said a well-thought out plan would have included a series of controls — from plexiglass barriers to arranging the flow of work and people to minimize contact. 

“We have witnessed what a lack of planning has done in the long term care system. We do not want a repeat of this in our education system,” she said. 

McFadgen said her members, including educational assistants, cleaners, bus drivers, secretaries, and cafeteria workers, are essential to ensuring a safe school environment. She stressed they need a robust plan that clearly outlines their roles and responsibilities long before the school year starts. Instead, she said they are left with many questions. 

“How will cleaning procedures be implemented to reduce contact between workers and students? What is the minimum standard for cleaning buses, common areas, and classrooms? What types of cleaning products will be used? What if a child is symptomatic on the bus? What is the procedure reporting and dealing with such an incident,” McFadgen asked. 

“In fact bus drivers are one of the few classifications that will not be able to cohort as they drive students from all classes.”

Union leaders lamented the fact that when school doors reopen to students, teachers and staff, they won’t benefit from the two metre physical distancing recommendations outlined by public health as important in controlling the spread of COVID-19. They pointed out that many schools throughout the province don’t have functioning ventilation systems and likely won’t before school starts.

“Schools reopening requires more thought and planning than the glib response of the Minister of Education suggesting that we open windows,” McFadgen said.

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses Union, said the province worked very hard to keep COVID-19 out of our hospitals. She fears what might happen if the virus makes its way into the IWK Health Centre as a result of transmission via public schools.

“We have very vulnerable children there, some having cancer, receiving treatments, and we saw how it can go through a building so I‘m very concerned that the same caution isn’t happening in the education system that happened in health care,” Hazelton said.

“We were so good about keeping COVID out of our hospitals and out of our ICUs. I’m concerned that if it gets in a school and it gets in the IWK, we’re in big trouble.”

Schools could be ‘match that lights the second wave’

The union leaders expressed concern that there are no protocols in place for halting the spread of infection or around informing the public when school outbreaks occur. Despite the fact students in Grades 4 through 12 will wear masks in class, they say thousands more won’t. 

“We can’t start the school year cramming 30 bodies into tight spaces without proper ventilation where they may or may not wear masks and hope that COVID is not going to spread,” Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney said. 

“That’s simply not going to cut it with parents, and it’s certainly not good enough for the people who work in schools.”

Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney

Wozney said while they haven’t denounced the plan as a whole, the fundamental pieces they believe should be in the plan are absent. He said they’re being asked to accept “less than” everybody else in the province, which is why union leaders want the province to ensure students, teachers and public school system workers are afforded the same protections as every other worker in Nova Scotia.

“The back to school plan as it currently stands does not meet basic health guidelines in terms of social distancing and proper ventilation,” he said. 

“Opening the window of a crowded classroom where students are placed as little as 30 inches apart for several hours at a time does not meet the standard that every Nova Scotian deserves during this pandemic.”

Teachers, students, their families and other school staff living with underlying health conditions that put them at risk still don’t know how they’ll be accommodated, something Wozney described as “unfair and unwise.” He said there are also many outstanding questions about what will happen if someone in a school tests positive for COVID-19.

“As a father myself I shouldn’t have to guess what the protocol is in the event of a positive test at one of my children’s schools. I shouldn’t have to guess how many cases are required before my child’s school moves to remote learning,” he said. 

“I shouldn’t have dozens of questions spinning through my head that government is either unable or unwilling to answer, but this is exactly what tens of thousands of parents are being asked to accept at this very moment in Nova Scotia.”

Wozney described the return to school as not just an education issue, but something that impacts the entire province. 

“We’ve got 150,000 people going back to class under substandard safety protocols and who are at risk…If we have an outbreak in schools, it’s not going to simply happen in one tiny spot that can be isolated where we’re going to have an unfortunate tragedy like we did at Northwood,” Wozney said. 

“This stands potentially to tip us over the edge and be the match that lights the second wave in our province. This is for the greater good of Nova Scotia as well and that cannot be stressed enough.”

Urging Nova Scotians to demand better

Wozney is urging all concerned Nova Scotians to reach out en masse to their MLAs to apply the same “unrelenting pressure” that resulted in the provincial and federal governments backing down from a review panel into the province’s mass shooting in favour of a full public inquiry. 

When asked by reporters if teachers are considering job action or staging a walkout, Wozney said they’ve not yet discussed that possibility because they’re hoping for a collaborative approach. But he added that if the safety of students, teachers and staff remains at risk as the first day of school looms closer, talk about that kind of action “is going to grow.”

On Thursday evening, the Department of Education responded to the Halifax Examiner’s Wednesday morning request for comment with an emailed statement.

Spokesperson Violet MacLeod said union representatives have been actively engaged throughout the planning process for school in September, adding that their feedback was “key” in developing the back to school plan. MacLeod said they also used feedback received from more than 28,000 parents and students, from PACE, teachers, principals, direction from public health, and advice from paediatricians and psychologists at the IWK.

“Given the current presentation of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia, this is the best plan for our children,” MacLeod wrote. “We are taking a layered approach with several public health measures to keep students, teachers and staff safe, like staggered recesses and lunches, cohorting classes in elementary schools, separate exits and entrances, increased signage and reminders about good health practices like clean hands.”

MacLeod also said the Regional Centres for Education and the CSAP (Francophone school board) are doing a school-by-school maintenance check of existing ventilation systems to best maximize airflow, creating space between students within their classrooms, requiring masks for students from grades 4 to 12 if they cannot socially distance, as well as masks on buses for all students. She added they’re also providing schools with PPE and sanitizer.

“Our plan is a responsive one and any of our practices can be modified in the event that the epidemiology of COVID-19 changes.”

MacLeod said students and staff are required to self-screen for possible COVID-19 symptoms before going to school. Those who feel ill during the day will go home and be advised to call 811. Each school will have an isolation space where children will be wearing a mask as they wait for their parents to arrive.

“As the Minister has shared, we are investing an additional $40 million to support students and teachers’ return school in September,” MacLeod wrote, adding those funds will be used to hire more custodial staff and to purchase school supplies to support a “no sharing” policy for students.

“We will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation and work with Public Health to adjust as needed to keep our students safe,” MacLeod said.

“Ensuring a safe learning environment for our students, staff and teachers is our top priority. We are taking our direction from Public Health and following their guidelines for a safe return to school in September.”

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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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  1. There is disquiet out there about use of the term ‘second wave’ as a scientific term.

    “When you have 20,000-plus infections per day, how can you talk about a second wave?” said Dr Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health. “We’re in the first wave. Let’s get out of the first wave before you have a second wave.”

    “Clearly there was an initial infection peak in April as cases exploded in New York City. After schools and businesses were closed across the country, the rate of new cases dropped somewhat.

    But “it’s more of a plateau, or a mesa,” not the trough after a wave, said Caitlin Rivers, a disease researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security.

    Scientists generally agree the nation is still in its first wave of coronavirus infections, albeit one that’s dipping in some parts of the country while rising in others.”

    But more importantly, it implies that there is something about the infection that it has an inevitability about it. More properly perhaps we should be referring to a regression to pre Covid standards – a dropping of the guard that makes it possible for the virus to return more easily due to laxity and misbehaviour on the part of segments of the population.

    Iain Taylor

  2. As a psychologist and mom of 3 in the public school system, my hope is that in the next 20 days all of us invested in the education of our children begin to model behavior that our children can be proud of. This means encouraging open and productive dialogue, truly listening to one another, answering the questions that can be answered, and thinking collaboratively about ways to solve the unanswered questions. Transparency, honesty and empathy are important. We should rely on data and best evidence, turn to and trust experts. Fears are understandable, but we must weigh the risks, and move forward. Avoidance will increase anxiety. We must learn to tolerate a level of uncertainty. It is time to come together. We can do this.

    1. None of the above changes the fact that schools won’t come close to meeting public health guidelines in September, the guidelines that every other segment of society has to function under.

      “Turn to and trust the experts”? The gov’t appears to have no plan in place for when the inevitable outbreaks occur.

      1. It’s important to listen to experts. It’s also important for experts to acknowledge their own uncertainties and (as Glenn points out) their compromises on established public health standards.

        My biggest concern is for all of the younger children who will have a harder time social distancing and also will not be required to wear masks in the classroom. The “logic” behind this policy is that children under 10 have been less likely to get the virus, but the problem here is that we don’t actually know WHY that is the case. It may be some innate physiological factor; but it’s more likely that we’ve just done an overall better job of keeping young children isolated during the pandemic. Infection spikes elsewhere in daycares and some schools would lend some support to the latter explanation.

        Honesty, open dialogue, collaborative thinking, etc. are all desirable. But parents need these from experts and decision makers just as much as they expect it from us. That’s how we build trust at a time like this.

        The decision to return children to school may or may not be a sound one. Time will tell. But I think it’s clear that they are doing all of their preparations on a ridiculously accelerated timetable so that things can return to “normal” on the prescribed school start date.

        People can make their own guesses at why things are unfolding the way they are. I certainly have my pet theories. I just keep wondering why school couldn’t be delayed by a just a few weeks to allow enough time for each school to figure out how to turn the government’s outline into an actual plan for delivering education in it’s own community. This might allow for some actual collaboration with concerned parents.

  3. There are many worrying signs. We received our first ‘school-specific plan’ email from our Principal and it was really just a boilerplate promise that they are working on a plan.

    When we tried to share some concerns through the school email address and principal’s enail address, the out of office messages indicated that they won’t be back in school until next week, which seems a little late under the circumstances.

    I’m left feeling even more doubtful of their ability to be ready for Sept.8.