Provincial back to school plan questioned by unions, parties

Zack Churchill

HALIFAX: Plans by the provincial government to have students, teachers and staff in schools on September 8 received more criticism.

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 required to protect students and their families from COVID-19.

High on the list of concerns for the unions is the lack of proper physical distancing in schools, large class sizes, poor ventilation, and inconsistent rules regarding masks. The unions said there also needs to be a clear protocol to halt the spread and inform parents in the event of an outbreak at a school.

“Opening schools safely needs to be a top priority. We owe it to our children to get this plan right so they can be back with their friends and teachers in an environment where they can thrive,” says Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union president Paul Wozney. “But a plan that involves cramming 20-30 kids at a time into small, stuffy classrooms and opening a window doesn’t provide the level of confidence that is required.”

Nova Scotia Federation of Labour President Danny Cavanagh says safety has to be priority number 1 this September.

“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,” noted Cavanaugh. “Given what’s at stake, this is the last place where you want to be cutting corners in terms of safety. Unfortunately, the government’s current school reopening plan falls well short of public health guidelines designed to protect families and workers from COVID-19 exposure.”

Nova Scotia Nurses Union President Janet Hazelton, who represents nurses in the public school system, agrees.

“Lessons learned in our recent experience with COVID, the most important being the health and safety of staff and those they serve are critical.”

“A huge concern is that it when comes to occupational health and safety, the plan is silent,” says Nan McFadgen, president, CUPE Nova Scotia. “A well-thought-out plan would contain a series of controls such as plexiglass barriers, arranging work flow and people to minimize contact, and PPE. Nowhere is there evidence of such planning. The actions proposed are only half-formed and often offered as suggestions rather than requirements.”

“Schools are ecosystems run by a huge intersection of different people. There are students and teachers, but also a whole array of other workers, including teaching assistants and library staff SEIU Local 2 represents,” says the SEIU Local 2 vice president/business agent. “The province’s reckless approach to reopening, places all of these people—and by extension, the community at large—at risk of contracting coronavirus. Working people deserve basic rights to a safe working and learning environment. That means, at a minimum, adequate social distancing and access to masks.”

“The NSGEU was on a call with government officials yesterday and there are still many important details not being considered such as working with Occupational Health and Safety Committees to conduct safety audits of all work places,” says NSGEU President Jason MacLean. “The NSGEU stands in solidarity with all school workers who have the right to know the specific plans and actions in place to protect the health and safety of students and staff. Government’s wait and see approach is not good enough and students, workers, and families deserve better.”

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.

“In other jurisdictions that meant they were procuring additional buses, they were procuring iPads and devices and really looking at the classroom setting; for months they’ve been doing that,” Houston told The Reporter. “It’s pretty shocking to me how little attention the Liberal government appears to have invested in the return of education.”

Since COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of life, NDP Education spokesperson Claudia Chender said they’re simply asking the government to clearly communicate details.

“Today we’ve heard from the unions that represent teachers and staff in our province’s schools,” Chender said. “They are telling us the same thing we’ve heard from parents and students: we need more information to ensure people are prepared to return to schools in 20 days’ time.

“The Minister of Education should be updating Nova Scotians on a regular basis. We need to know that teachers have the information and resources they need to set up safely for the school year. We need to know that plans are being made to ensure quick access to testing for students, teachers and staff. Staff and parents need to know now that they will have paid sick time available if they need to stay home with children who are sick.”