A Grade 2 classroom is shown with the desks spread apart to follow physical distancing protocols.

ANTIGONISH: Offering a sneak peek at how their schools will be operating this academic school year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Strait Regional Centre for Education (SRCE) provided media a tour of Antigonish Education Centre (AEC) last week.

Schools across the province have since re-opened for full-time, in-class learning as of Sept. 8, with enhanced safety measures; AEC’s Principal April Weaver said those measures are being held to the highest standard at hers, which has over 630 students registered.

Following new protocols, as buses arrive at AEC, they will now unload one at a time in an orderly fashion, following proper physical distancing, unlike what the previous chaotic drop-off routine could create at times.

To educate and remind their young student body to follow the provincial physical distancing requirements, a large amount of signage has been installed all across the school.

Additionally, the regular push-to-start water fountains are being replaced with water bottle re-fill stations, and there has been a maximum occupancy placed on the number of students allowed inside the washrooms and offices at any given time.

Inside the classrooms, desks have been separated, to provide for a physically-distanced learning environment and will also serve as that classroom’s lunchroom – students will no longer be eating together in the cafeteria.

“I think this is where teachers are, they’re really looking forward, for the most part, to eating in the classrooms again. It’s something we did, years back,” Weaver said. “Meals will be delivered by the food service down to the classrooms, and children will have their meals at their desks.”

Photos by Drake Lowthers
Antigonish Education Centre Principal April Weaver says teachers at her school are excited to get back into the classroom for the upcoming school year.

Students will be advised on proper hand washing, coughing etiquette and appropriate use of masks.

“Here at AEC, we’re so lucky, we actually have a sink in every single classroom,” Weaver said.

Each student will be issued two non-medical, reusable masks. Pre-primary to grade three students will be required to wear their masks on the bus and inside the building until they can clean their hands and properly take their masks off; they are optional in class.

The school’s grade four students will be required to wear their masks all day, something Weaver indicated they have created somewhat of a cool-down area inside their cafeteria where those students could come to take their mask off safely for a few minutes.

Paul Landry, SRCE’s regional executive director of education praised his teachers, who have been working diligently on implementing Nova Scotia’s Back to School Plan.

“Although this school year will look and feel different, I know we will come together as we did in the spring to continue to support one another and adapt to our changing circumstances with kindness, compassion and understanding,” he said. “I continue to be impressed and inspired by everyone’s ability to adapt as we navigate together through the COVID-19 pandemic. Our focus will continue to be on working together to support our students’ well-being, achievement and overall success. “

However, the NSGEU and the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union (NSTU) have stood together by calling for improved safety in schools, plus a delayed opening, in order to ensure a safe school experience for workers and students in Nova Scotia.

“Workers have a right to work in a safe environment according to the Nova Scotia Occupational Health and Safety Act,” says Sandra Mullen, NSGEU 1st Vice President. “The government has not done enough to ensure a safe workplace.”

She indicated teachers who need to manage classes of upwards of 27 students its clear there is no way to maintain public health safety standards with numbers like this in their limited space.

“It is very concerning that while the province will not return to the legislature because of questions regarding safety from COVID spread,” Mullen said. “They are willing to send students back to school without the teachers saying they are ready. Why do they continue to ignore frontline workers?”

On Sept. 2, the province outlined their potential COVID-19 exposure plan, which highlighted how parents should be prepared to isolate their child for 14-days.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang detailed how all close contacts, which could include; classmates and teachers, students travelling on the same school bus or in the same before or after school programs, will be tested.

Strang indicated those close contacts must isolate for 14-days, even if their test comes back negative, and students isolating will be given an at-home learning program so they can continue their studies.

Suggesting its clear some students will be required to isolate, he explained all families of students at a school with a potential exposure will be notified.

“I fully expect we will get cases of COVID-19 in schools,” Strang said. “It doesn’t mean that the plan has failed, it doesn’t mean that there’s a crisis, it simply means that what we expected to happen has happened, and then we will respond appropriately.”

If need be, he suggested they will re-close schools but only if there is a risk to all staff and students at a particular school.