Plans by the provincial government to re-open all public schools on September 8 are being soundly criticized by many stakeholders.

During a media briefing on August 14, Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development Zack Churchill updated Nova Scotia’s back to school plan.

All students in Grades 4 to 12 will be required to wear a mask inside schools except if they are seated at their desks while two metres apart and facing in the same direction. They must also be worn on the bus, in hallways and other common areas if a two-metre distance cannot be maintained.

Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union (NSTU) president Paul Wozney told The Reporter they are concerned with the availability of masks, the ability to maintain physical distancing, and large numbers of people in enclosed spaces, issues which he said have not been addressed, only weeks from the resumption of school.

One major issue among teachers is they don’t know how they will teach in this environment, nor do they know exactly what is required of them, the NSTU president noted.

Since Churchill told the press conference that teachers will be expected to sanitize classrooms, Wozney said this raises even more questions.

“… It’s unclear as to how much of our time we’re going to have to spend on a daily basis, wiping down every desk, every seat…,” Wozney noted. “It depends on how much sanitizer you’re going to need in the run of a day, it depends on the age of the students you teach, how often you switch classrooms, or how often kids are coming out of your classroom…”

Another issue is the overlap between unions, and Wozney questioned whether unions representing janitors and other staff were even consulted since teachers are unsure which work belongs to them and which to other unions.

To avoid problems resulting from the premature end of the school year and the switch to on-line instruction, Wozney said teachers are trying to devote as much as possible to student learning.

Additional measures and information for families ahead of September include school-by-school ventilation maintenance to ensure equipment is operating properly, in good condition and that windows can be opened, but Wozney said that is also up in the air after the minister admitted he doesn’t know how many schools in Nova Scotia have functioning ventilation systems.

The president of the NSTU rightfully pointed out that leaving windows open and turning up thermostats, in lieu of adequate ventilation, is not adequate.

Nova Scotia is distributing 310,000 non-medical masks to Regional Centres for Education and Conseil scolaire acadien provincial for students, teachers and staff. All students and staff will receive two free cloth masks. Disposable masks will also be available if a student forgets or loses their mask during the school day.

Regional centres for education and the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial will continue to communicate with families. Principals will also reach out to families with specific information about their school closer to September.

Schools, with the support of public health, will notify families as soon as they become aware of a COVID-19 case in their school, along with what measures will need to be taken.

Before and after school programs will be offered in accordance with public health guidelines.

A return to school sport schedule and protocols that follow public health guidelines are in the final stage of development with Sports Nova Scotia and will be sent to schools by the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation.

Resources for families and students are currently available at: https://novascotia.ca/backtoschool.

Then during a press conference in Halifax on August 19, union leaders representing teachers, education assistants, bus drivers, school specialists, administrative assistants, nurses, and other workers in the public school system said the current back-to-school plan does not provide the adequate level of safety to protect students and their families.

The unions said there needs to be a clear protocol to halt the spread and inform parents in the event of an outbreak at a school.

Nova Scotia Federation of Labour President Danny Cavanagh explained that the public educations system is the largest, most interconnected workplace in the province, and in a couple of weeks, 150,000 people will be walking into schools for the first time in six months. Given what’s at stake, Cavanaugh said this is the last place to be cutting corners.

Nova Scotia Nurses Union President Janet Hazelton, who represents nurses in the public school system, said recent lessons learned showed that the health and safety of staff and those they serve are critical.

CUPE Nova Scotia president Nan McFadgen agreed that the plan is silent on occupational health and safety and does not include controls such as plexiglass barriers, arranging work flow and people to minimize contact, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

SEIU Local 2 said the plan places students, teachers, staff, and their communities at risk because schools are ecosystems run by a huge intersection of different people.

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union said steps like the formation of Occupational Health and Safety Committees are still not being considered.

Based on discussions with other provinces, Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston said Nova Scotia should have been planning for the upcoming school year last spring. As a result, he said this province now has hundreds of unanswered questions just a couple of weeks from the start date. He said other jurisdictions have been procuring extra buses and iPads and examining the classroom setting for months now.

Since COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of life, NDP Education spokesperson Claudia Chender said the unions and parents simply want more information to ensure everyone is ready.

She suggested that the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development regularly update Nova Scotians to answer lingering questions.

And yes, with two weeks to go, there are many unanswered questions, there are many details left to iron-out, there are many issues which remain unexamined, and there is great uncertainty among teachers, staff, students, and parents.

While more information seems to be the solution to many concerns; it is conceivable that not all questions can be answered and it is inevitable that mistakes will be made, and as a result, some plans will have to be re-drawn, eliminated or tweaked.

That doesn’t mean that education stakeholders should throw up their hands in defeat, but it does mean that schools will have to re-open before some of these questions can be answered.