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The government of Nova Scotia has done an about-face on mask policy for school reopening on Sept. 8.
As originally announced on July 22, the plan required masks on school buses for all students, and in hallways for high school students, but masks were not required in classrooms.
But significant concern was expressed by parents and teachers. And, last week, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, updated public health guidelines such that all students over 10 years old should wear masks in classrooms, if they cannot physically distance the recommended two metres.
Today, Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill announced that this province’s plan was amended to match the federal public health guidelines: masks will be required of all students in Grades 4 through 12 in classrooms, except when they are sitting at their desks and those desks are two metres apart.
It’s unlikely there are many, if any, classrooms that can maintain two metre separation between students.
All students and staff will be given two reusable masks, and disposable masks will be available for those who forget or lose their masks.
After the update, Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney said the about-face on masks was welcome, but the province hasn’t done enough to detail the back-to-school plan and Strang doesn’t seem to understand how schools operate.
“I have respect for Dr. Strang,” said Wozney, “but he seems to think that students will sit at their desks, in rows six feet apart, all day long. That’s not how schools operate. They haven’t operated like that in decades.”
Wozney said many classrooms don’t have individual desks, but rather students work at group tables, with the teacher wandering around the room. “Are we going to cut those tables down? Who’s going to do that?” he asked.
Moreover, Wozney said there have been no announcements about who is going to re-configure classrooms.
No ventilation? No problem: open the windows
Churchill also announced that the province is assessing the ventilation systems in all schools and making sure that windows can be properly opened.
Churchill acknowledged that many older schools don’t have ventilation systems at all, and so the idea is that the school windows will stay open.
What about in winter? “Windows can remain open,” Churchill replied. “We have heating systems in all of our schools, and ventilation is important based on the recommendations we’re getting from Public Health. So, I mean, you know, the windows, you can open them up a little bit, you can open them up a lot, and I’m sure that level of opening will be adjusted depending on what’s coming into those windows depending on the weather outside. We just want to make sure those windows are working, because I believe that’s an important part of making sure our schools are breathing properly.”
Churchill additionally announced $40 million in new spending for schools, which includes $29 million to hire more substitute teachers, $8.7 million to hire more janitors, $1.4 million to lengthen the day for pre-primary workers so they can clean before and after school, $1.2 million for more lunch monitors, and $0.5 million for more school supplies so students don’t have to share.
Many of the new substitutes will not have education degrees, said Churchill.
Those substitutes are “people with skill sets in various courses,” said Churchill. “If someone has experience in Music, or Phys ed, or a degree in History or English, these obviously are the first choices of for non-[degree] holders to come in.”
Before- and after-school programs like Excel (in HRM) will be open, said Churchill, subject to public health rules to be announced soon.
Each school will “communicate” their plans to parents beginning August 24.
Both Churchill and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said if a case of COVID is detected in a school, the community will be told “very quickly.”
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