NSTU questions return to school plans

Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Zack Churchill and Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health address reporters during a briefing on August 14 in Halifax.

HALIFAX: The province’s teacher’s union has problems with plans by the provincial government to re-open schools on September 8.

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.

“The decision to require masks for Grades 4 and up in our schools is in line with recent evidence and guidance from the Public Health Agency of Canada,” said Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief public health officer. “Along with all the other public health measures, masks will help protect our school communities from COVID-19.”

Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union 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.

“Are we really keeping people safe in our back to school plan?” Wozney asked, noting that not all issues have been addressed.

One major issue among teachers is their ability to teach in this environment and what is required of them, the NSTU president noted.

“They’re not going to be able to do all the things they’re used to doing. It’s going to demand that they work with students differently,” Wozney said. “What they don’t know is what changes are going to need to be made to comply with public health directives.”

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 fill these gaps.

“Teachers really want to be in a position to kind of devote all of the time that they have with students to learning, and now 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, learning material that students use,” Wozney noted. “How long does it take to sanitize your workplace? Is it a five minute process before you can start teaching?”

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

“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, so that’s an unknown for a lot of people,” Wozney said.

Another issue is the overlap between unions, and Wozney questioned whether unions representing janitors and other staff were even consulted.

“We know what work belongs to us and what work doesn’t,” stated Wozney. “The government is saying sanitizing is not cleaning, but I don’t think it would come as a surprise to you, or to the general public, that the government considers a difference between sanitizing and cleaning but most reasonable adults would say, ‘I don’t see the difference.’”

Additional measures and information for families ahead of September include school-by-school ventilation maintenance will take place to ensure equipment is operating properly, in good condition and that windows can be opened.

“The minister identified on Friday that he doesn’t know how many schools in Nova Scotia have functioning ventilation systems or no ventilation systems at all,” Wozney noted.

The president of the NSTU pointed out that leaving windows open, in lieu of proper ventilation, is not adequate.

“The fact that we’re going to send kids into buildings and the best hope to make sure that buildings breathe properly is to open all windows and turn the heat up in the winter, surely has to be alarming to parents,” he said. “The fact that we don’t know how many schools have ventilation systems that are actually working properly at this point, that’s information that should have been know before the planning process every started.”

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.

“Our goal, first and foremost, is student and staff safety. We developed our plan to be flexible, to best support the return to school for children, students and staff,” said Zach Churchill, Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development. “This change is in line with new federal recommendations around mask wearing and what we know about their effectiveness to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially when wearing masks.”

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.

Wozney added that the question isn’t whether schools are ready but whether they are safe and healthy.

“Two weeks isn’t a lot of time but a lot can change in two weeks,” he added. “We sincerely hope that the government will listen to teachers and adjust the plan to meet the legitimate concerns that teachers and parents have about keeping everyone safe at school.”

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