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Nova Scotia will require university and community college students arriving from outside Atlantic Canada to get three tests for COVID-19 during their 14-day self-isolation period. 

The additional testing strategy was announced by Premier Stephen McNeil earlier this afternoon. It’s a measure that should help Public Health respond more quickly to potential outbreaks and hopefully contain them through improved contact tracing. 

The money for the testing is being provided by the federal government and McNeil is hopeful the measure will reassure citizens in towns like Wolfville and Antigonish, where students from outside the Atlantic region make up 30 to 40% of the student body. Halifax will also see an influx of thousands of young adults.

“I know this is making many Nova Scotians nervous,” said McNeil, “but our post-secondary institutions are important. They play a major role in educating our young people and they play a major role in supporting our economy. If students are asymptomatic, these tests should help us detect COVID… we have also improved our tracking for everyone entering Nova Scotia from outside the Atlantic bubble, not just the students. A digital check-in will soon replace phone calls to ensure people are self-isolating.”

“We have to be realistic,” said McNeil. “COVID is not going away. Our hope is that our isolation plan and testing strategy will prevent a major spike in cases.”

In response for a request for more details on the testing of students, Public Health said that:

Consistent with our testing strategy throughout the province, you are allowed to go directly to the testing site for your appointment time and directly back to the place where you are self-isolating. These testing sites are either on campus or nearby. Do not make any stops along the way. Stay at least 2 metres/6 feet away from other people.

Do not take a bus or ferry to the testing site. Depending on the circumstances, transportation may be arranged for you. You can walk, bike, drive, or take a taxi. It is mandatory to wear a non-medical mask if you take a taxi. The mask is also mandatory in indoor public places and you may need to walk through one of these places to reach the testing site. Masks are required in the testing site.

International students?

It’s unclear whether Ottawa will make an exception to its “no unnecessary international travel” policy to allow students from outside Canada to attend post-secondary institutions. International students pay more than double the usual tuition fees and also contribute tens of millions of dollars each year to the local economy by buying goods and services. Last week, the Province of Nova Scotia ran advertisements every day in the Chronicle Herald touting the benefits of staying home and enrolling in a Nova Scotia college or university.

The ad that ran in the Chronicle Herald

The spend on this type of advertising campaign suggests Nova Scotia’s 10 universities are experiencing a significant decline in international students as a result of COVID. I asked to speak with Advanced Education Minister Labi Kousoulis after today’s cabinet meeting and submitted a question asking for “ a ballpark estimate” as to how much enrolment could be down and what impact that could have on revenue to finance post-secondary education. 

Kousoulis didn’t answer, but the department’s spokesperson, Shannon Kerr, replied later this afternoon via email:

We are in regular communication with the universities to understand the impact of COVID-19 on their operations. It is still too early to speculate on enrolment numbers for the Fall as they typically aren’t finalized until late September. We continue to monitor the situation and work with universities to support them.

For specific questions related to current enrolment, you may wish to reach out to the universities directly or the Council on Nova Scotia University Presidents.

Meanwhile, the international student angle also affects public schools. Education Minister Zach Churchill said his department is considering whether it is an acceptable risk during a pandemic to welcome international exchange students who pay to attend junior and senior high schools across the province.

Big Bucks for Big Tourism Operators

“We have to continue to support our businesses which have suffered severe financial loss and hardship,” said McNeil. “That’s why today Public Accounts included $50 million for the Nova Scotia COIVID Research Council at Dalhousie University. Dalhousie will set the criteria to determine how that money is spent. We have asked them to consider our large tourism anchor businesses: those that keep our industry alive and thriving and those that hire hundreds of Nova Scotians.”

“Large” is the operative word although it’s not clear how large. Picture employers such as Murphys on the Halifax waterfront with its waiters and Harbour Hopper tours, Ambassatours with its fleet of double-decker tour buses and drivers and guides, large inns and lodges in places such as Pictou, Digby, Baddeck, and Lunenburg, which have never seen as quiet a summer with so few tourists. 

McNeil admitted if he had his druthers he would have opened to the rest of Canada sooner. He said he will continue to take his cue from guidance given by Public Health.

“The next few weeks will be critical as we welcome a lot of young people into our province,” said McNeil. “We want to monitor that. But at some point, we are going to have to open up our province to the rest of Canada for the health of our economy.” 

McNeil said he will not wait for the other Atlantic premiers to ease the 14-day self-isolation policy but will open up as soon as the Chief Medical Officer of Health gives the green light based on the epidemiology.

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

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