NSCC, StFX, province make back-to-school plans

By: Drake Lowthers and

Dana MacPhail-Touesnard

ANTIGONISH: As the new academic year approaches, local post-secondary institutions and the province are taking slightly different approaches to the way students, faculty and staff return to normal.

In anticipation of a return to campus learning in the coming weeks, the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC), which includes the Strait Area Campus in Port Hawkesbury, announced it will be making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for all employees and students.

“We firmly believe a vaccinated population is a vital part of keeping us, our friends, families and communities protected from the virus and the developing, fast-moving variants,” Don Bureaux said in a release. “We know this will raise some questions and even concerns within our community. Please be patient with us as we work through this new policy and its application.”

Students and employees will have until Tuesday, Oct. 12 to provide proof of vaccination.

The NSCC said it will support their community to work towards a goal of being double vaccinated by Oct. 12, and while proof of vaccination will be necessary, it is still finalizing details on how records will be submitted to ensure privacy is respected.

The college is also working with public health to host pop-up vaccine clinics at campuses, where possible, to assist employees and students increase vaccination rates. As an important surveillance tool, NSCC will be making voluntary asymptomatic rapid testing available on campuses as well.

Students and employees who cannot or choose not to be vaccinated for medical, religious or other reasons will be required to be tested for COVID-19 twice per week and wear masks on campus, the NSCC said.

While the province anticipates the easing of some restrictions mid-September, NSCC will continue to require masking indoors on all sites through to Oct. 12.

“We are continually monitoring and adjusting our measures and guidelines based on advice from public health and any efforts needed to support our return to greater in-person learning and working this fall so that that return to campus is done safely,” Bureaux said. “We’re all in this together and must stay vigilant so that we can remain on a positive path.”

While StFX isn’t taking the same mandatory vaccination route, it is implementing a mandatory testing protocol, which will be free and available during regular working hours to ensure accessibility.

In a letter to the campus community urging individuals to get their shots at the first opportunity, StFX University indicated the health and safety of their communities remain their top priority and the very best way to protect them is to be fully vaccinated – however, it is not following suit with other post-secondary institutions in the province and across Canada which are implementing their own mandatory vaccination policy.

“The university has begun consultations with our union leadership and the students’ union related to a mandatory testing policy for all students, staff, and faculty,” president Andy Hakin said in a release. “While we strongly encourage regular asymptomatic testing among all members of the community, constituents who are fully vaccinated will be exempt from mandatory testing with proper proof of vaccination.”

StFX advised it will be conducting a campus-wide census survey to help it quantify and understand the vaccination status of all staff, faculty, and students to support planning purposes.

Vaccinations will be made available on campus on Sept. 3 and Sept. 13, with a free, first-come, first served Nova Scotia Health mobile clinic. The university is also preparing a staff and faculty information session for Aug. 31.

Residents of the Antigonish community are invited to join Hakin, Mayor Laurie Boucher from the Town of Antigonish and Warden Owen McCarron from the Municipality of the County of Antigonish for an information session on Sept. 1 from 6:30 – 7:30 p.m.

“As we approach the beginning of the fall semester, I remain confident that the university is prepared,” Hakin said. “As mentioned in a previous email, we have evidence that indicates our community has heeded the call for vaccinations.”

Along with the “very low” number of students who have registered to isolate on campus, which is only 20 students, the “Neighbours Helping Neighbours” off-campus support program has only two students registered.

This is different from last year, when anyone outside of Atlantic Canada had to self-isolate for 14 days, and there was no vaccine.

Based on a sample size of 324 students, the data StFX has received from the province in relation to the Nova Scotia Safe Check-In Form, 93 per cent of students en route to Antigonish from outside Atlantic Canada will be arriving fully vaccinated.

“Our protocols, which proved effective in 2020-21, have been reviewed and continue to be sound. What’s new to other institutions, such as isolation procedures, we have successfully executed over the last academic year,” Hakin said. “Having said that, we remain diligent and will continue to adapt and respond when necessary, based on the latest epidemiology and guidance from the experts in public health.”

The Strait Regional Centre for Education (SREC) operates 20 schools and following meetings with principals last week, Paul Landry, the regional executive director, says there is a lot of excitement for the return to school.

“It was great to connect with principals in person and everyone was really excited that we’re moving closer to Phase 5 and that the school year is looking a little more ‘normal’ and we really look forward to those educational routines that we had in the past,” he said.

“It’s exciting for us to get back to all of those pieces and move back to what we were used to prior to COVID-19.”

In addition to a return to the way things used to be, the Back to School plan references some of the lessons learned throughout the pandemic.

“COVID taught us a number of things that we will continue with in this school year and beyond,” Landry said.

Necessity being the mother of invention, staff not only worked to ensure school ventilation systems met provincial guidelines and that doors and windows were left open when appropriate, they also sought more opportunity to spend time outdoors, where COVID is less likely to be transmitted.  

Michel Collette, the superintendent of the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (CSAP) – the French-language school system that operates 21 schools province-wide including École Beau-Port in Arichat and École acadienne de Pomquet – adds that his team is eager to continue with a focus on outdoor instruction.

“I think we learned a lot of great things during the pandemic and that is absolutely one of them,” he said last week.

“At the CSAP we’re actually developing a new framework for outdoor learning so that teachers and staff have all the elements necessary to easily bring those kids outside and integrate outside into the curriculum.

Both Landry and Collette applauded the wider community who helped create and enhance the impromptu outdoor classrooms with donations of time, skill, and equipment, as well as their respective staff teams who were quick to adapt.

For parents who are sending their children to school for the first time, the provincial plan also brought the pleasant news that they would be able to accompany their children to school on that special first day, as was often the norm pre-COVID. Once again opening the doors of the school to visitors, who must follow public health measures, also marks an important return to normalcy.

“We love having the parents involved, we love having them in our schools, teachers love speaking to them face-to-face. So, we are very excited to have the community back in the school and are welcoming them back,” said Collette, noting that while technology certainly helped bridge the gap, the “rich and diverse” community outside each school building was missed in the previous academic year.

As elementary and high school students across the province return to the classroom on Sept. 7 with core public health measures in place, the return is being seen as a return to a more normal routine.

According to a release from the province, students, families and staff can expect full in-class learning, full resumption of music classes, band and sports, the use of cafeterias, lockers and cubbies, extra-curricular activities, building supportive environments for those who choose to wear a mask, and non-essential visitors will once again be permitted in Nova Scotia’s back to school plan.

“Our schools are as safe as our communities and thanks to safe and effective vaccines, and Nova Scotians rolling up their sleeves, our schools have an additional layer of protection this year that will allow students to have a much more normal year,” Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health said in the release. “We continue to have core public health measures in place to protect everyone in our schools, including wearing masks, frequent hand washing, staying home if you’re sick and sanitizing high-touch surfaces.”

Masks will remain to be required at all times for anyone inside a school building or bus and can only be removed when the person is eating or drinking, participating in physical activity, and for breaks where people are physically distanced.

With Nova Scotia entering Phase 5 of their reopening plan on Sept. 15, schools will transition to a protocol that makes masks optional, and if enhanced public health measures are required and students are moved to at-home learning, it will look similar to the approach used in 2020-21.

On the issue of staff vaccinations, Dr. Strang noted in a media briefing on Aug. 23 that while vaccinations have not been mandated for teachers in the public school system, coverage is strong if you look at the demographics.

“The 35 and above (demographic) have very high vaccination rates,” he said.

“The vast majority of teachers are in that age cohort, so I don’t think we have a huge amount of unvaccinated teachers out there.”

Dr. Strang said the 12-18 age group also has strong vaccination rates, adding that it’s the 20-35 group that isn’t doing very well in terms of vaccination status.

The key to keeping school safe, the plan asserts, is keeping communities safe.

In addition to the core public health measures that are embedded in the system, including hand hygiene, environmental cleaning, ventilation, etc., temporary public health measures may be applied in certain situations such as increasing community transmission or school outbreaks.

The provincial Back to School plan, which is subtitled “Living with COVID,” as well as the CSAP and SRCE school administrators, heap praise on the community at large and their respective staff members for coming together to tackle COVID-19.

“Kids work hard, it wasn’t easy for them. It wasn’t easy for staff either, but we got through it and it shows the resilience of our school system, our kids, our teachers and all our other staff,” concluded CSAP superintendent Collette.

Landry agrees that kids, staff, and the community, including school advisory committees (SAC) rose to the occasion.

“We had a very successful school year and I believe that this was a testament to the collective efforts of our students, staff and families.”

The Back to School plan was created with input from numerous shareholders including public health, the Provincial Pediatric Advisory Group, applicable unions, the Public School Administrators Association of Nova Scotia, support staff, teachers and survey results from parents, guardians and other partners.