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Nova Scotia’s Education Department is fielding dozens of questions from parents, teachers, and opposition politicians about the Back-to-School plan unveiled July 22. Some changes are being made, said Education Minister Zach Churchill after cabinet met yesterday, and principals and vice-principals are headed back to school next week to work with the department to provide answers before classes begin Sept. 8.
“In Nova Scotia, we currently are in an enviable position from an epidemiological perspective,” noted Churchill. “If we continue to follow Public Health advice and follow the science around COVID-19, I believe we can get to a better state of normal, where we can get our kids back to school and where we aren’t leaving a generation behind because of this pandemic and do so in a way that creates a high level of safety for everybody.”
One of the biggest concerns raised by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and other labour groups is that the two metre physical distancing standard required by Public Health in other workplaces cannot be met in most classrooms, where 25-30 students gather. The teachers want smaller classes or in the case of teenagers, students attending school on alternate days. But that appears to be a non-starter for the Education minister when the Examiner asked if reducing class sizes is an option for September.
“If the epidemiology of this virus forces us to move to a blended learning model, half of our kids are coming out of school and the younger grades will be split into smaller groups” said Churchill. “Right now, Public Health is telling us we can get back to 100% capacity. And of course, that’s how we want to keep it.”
A “blended learning” model in the event of a COVID outbreak at a school or in the community means students in Grades 9-12 stay at home and learn online. Younger students in Grades P-8 would continue going to school but in smaller groups. Some of these students could be taught in the space vacated by high school students.
Plan B is for Blended
If the number of cases reach a point (not yet revealed) where Public Health would order moving to a blended model of learning at a school, a family of schools, or an entire school region, what is being done to ensure students without Internet at home are able to stay connected?
“The Department of Education is making sure devices are available in the event we have to go to a blended learning model for our older students who will do the bulk of their learning from home,” responded Churchill. (The department has purchased 14,000 computers for students if teaching has to migrate online as it did last spring.. “For secondary students who don’t have access to high-speed Internet at home, we will be utilizing USB sticks where course material and assignments can be downloaded. These students will still have access to schools for specialized courses and to learning centres inside schools where they can use the Internet if they don’t have it at home.”
Those fixes deal with some of the barriers but not all of them. The NDP’s Education critic points out a number of locations across the province still don’t have ready access to high-speed Internet.
“For many people, the cost of high speed internet and devices to access it aren’t in the budget,” “said Claudia Chender in a news release yesterday. “Even for families who can afford access, the connection speeds necessary aren’t always available.”
A new report from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) shows that rural Canadians still deal with download speeds 10 times slower than those in urban areas. Ahead of a potential second wave of COVID-19, plans should be made to ensure public access to the internet remains available in some way, said Chender.
“The Department of Business and Develop Nova Scotia are the lead on connectivity and there have been some big investments in terms of expanding highspeed and I believe there undoubtedly will be more projects moving forward,” said Churchill.
In March, the government funnelled an additional $15 million to the agency to try and encourage Internet Service Providers to fast-track projects to bring high speed internet to thousands of under-served people in rural Nova Scotia. So far, the take-up rate has been only $3 million.
The government already had a fund of more than $200 million earmarked since March 2018 to improve rural internet service. A dozen or so service providers have been approved to install and maintain high-speed systems and work is underway in King’s County, Cumberland-Colchester, Caledonia, and Elmsdale. Some 18,000 homes and businesses are being connected during this first phase. A second round of tenders has yet to be awarded. Cook’s Brook musician J.P. Cormier is threatening to sue the government because without high-speed internet, he is unable to work and perform during the pandemic.
Last week the Churchill announced $40 million to support the Back-to-School plan. It included $29 million to hire more substitute teachers, $8.7 million to hire 175 cleaners, as well as much smaller amounts to hire lunch monitors and pay pre-Primary educators to stay later in the day.
Churchill told reporters all school districts would adhere to Public Health guidelines that require ventilation systems to be checked and operating properly. In some schools, that’s windows. In other schools, it is mechanical air-handling systems. That work is underway now.
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