Zack Churchill

While it might seem contradictory that StFX’s plan to resume in-person classes was criticized, while plans by the provincial government to re-open public schools in September are receiving support, a closer examination should provide ample explanation.

On July 22, Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, Zack Churchill, along with chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, announced that students across the province will return to class on Tuesday, September 8.

Noting that experts told them children need school for their mental and physical well-being, Churchill said classes will resume 100 per cent and the full provincial curriculum will be taught, although there will be some changes to the physical education and music programs.

Teachers will undertake comprehensive assessments of where students are in their learning to identify strengths and weaknesses and plan instruction accordingly.

Access to schools will be limited to students, staff and what the minister called “essential adults” like parents and guardians. Even substitute teachers will be scheduled to work in the fewest number of schools possible.

The Pre-Primary program will proceed in all schools in the province in September.

Assemblies, curriculum nights and parent-teacher meetings will now be held virtually.

As well, students and staff are required to self-screen before school. In the case there is infection, the province is asking that education officials isolate children who become ill, mask the student and supervising staff at school, call that student’s parents, and send the student home.

Churchill said the department has secured masks, hand sanitizer and Personal Protect Equipment, which are being distributed in each region.

Classrooms will be reorganized to increase spacing, and each class will be treated as a bubble, to minimize contact with other students. Under this plan the classes will have lunch and recess together, there will be no sharing of supplies, paper and food and teachers are encouraged to move classes outside where possible.

Cafeterias and school food programs will deliver food to students, and students will eat lunch at their desks.

There will no access to lockers at any school.

There will be enhanced cleaning on school buses and all school bus riders and drivers will need to wear a mask.

All staff and students in high school will be required to wear a mask in school spaces where social distancing is not possible, like hallways and common areas. Students and staff do not have to wear a mask in class, unless they want to, or if they are working with a student whose individual program plan requires a mask be worn.

Regular handwashing or hand sanitizing by students and staff before entering school for classes and throughout the day will be enforced.

In-school assemblies and other large gatherings will not be permitted.

The plan includes contingences if it becomes necessary to adjust based on public health advice.

The province said the back to school plan is supported by public health, the IWK Health Centre and education partners and was developed with survey feedback from more than 28,000 parents and students, and input from union and education partners.

Led by education regions, the survey was sent to all parents and students. The feedback gathered included requests for a predictable learning schedule, and clear expectations for teachers related to on-line teaching and learning.

During on-line learning, teachers will deliver classes with a mix of real-time instruction and self-directed assignments.

As a result of the survey, teachers will give marks and grades in all areas, report cards will be issued as per normal schedules, and parents are encouraged to sign up for PowerSchool to receive e-report cards and to track the status of homework and assignments. Also provincial examinations (English 10, Français 10, and Mathematics /Mathématiques 10) will take place.

As for technology, schools will encourage students to bring and use their own device in school, and students who don’t have access to a device at home will receive a device. Parents said there were some challenges in accessing technology, so the province invested $4 million to secure 14,000 computers to support student learning for those with limited or no access to technology.

For children who need additional supports, the province said supports will be provided in all school options. In September, all specialist services will be available at school.

The Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation (NSSAF) has a plan – that has been submitted to Sport Nova Scotia and the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage for approval – and is developing a schedule for return of some, but not all, sports. Schools will communicate schedules and COVID practices with schools, parents and students in the fall.

School clubs will go ahead if they can be done safely and in-line with public health guidelines.

As for students unable to attend school because of pre-existing physical conditions, the minister said they will be exempt. And the situation is the same for teachers and support staff, who are older or have health problems.

Unlike StFX where students will be streaming in to Antigonish from all over the world even as more on-line options could be offered, re-opening public schools in Nova Scotia is necessary.

In the case of StFX, the worry is from students arriving to Antigonish from COVID-19 hotspots like the United States, and possibly spreading the virus in the community.

In the case of Nova Scotia schools, these are local schools containing small numbers of students and staff, all from the same region where there hasn’t been a COVID-19 case in months.

While there is a risk of transmission, that chance is very small given that Nova Scotia has now gone two weeks with zero new cases, even after the Atlantic bubble was announced and well after the province re-opened.

Risks aside, children need to get out of the house, get back with their schoolmates, see their friends, play with other children, and most importantly, learn in a classroom setting.

The on-line program offered in the spring served its purpose as a stop-gap measure during a time when there were few options, but it cannot replace real teachers providing instruction in-person, working with students, and students working together.

Aside from fulfilling the mental and physical needs of students and parents, there is no escaping the fact that schools need to resume so the economy can fully restart.

With school back in September, parents now have a dependable childcare option to allow them to re-enter the workplace. That not only helps families, but gives the Nova Scotia economy a much needed boost.

Society needs to resume, in some form, and this is the time to try to establish some normality; that starts with school.