Nova Scotia students return to personal learning

After an extended winter break and a week of virtual learning due to the ongoing wave of COVID-19, Nova Scotia students returned for personal learning on Monday.

Nova Scotia is the first Atlantic province to return to classrooms, but joined the ranks of BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan, which reopened schools earlier this month. Ontario and Quebec classrooms also reopened Monday.

“[We] certainly understand that there is anxiety about what today would bring and how the next five days will unfold, “said Tim Simony, president of the Public School Administrators Association of Nova Scotia.

But, he added, staff at schools and the regional centers that administer them have worked hard to ensure that personal learning will work.

Signs at the John MacNeil Elementary in Dartmouth, NS, show mask-bearing and physical distance protocols. (Robert Short / CBC)

Simony said his association – which represents principals, vice-principals and superintendents – has confidence in public health recommendations.

“We have had a lot of previous success following the guidance from public health and from an association perspective, [that’s] why we continue to do so. “

In some ways, public health guidance for schools is the same now as it has been in previous waves of the pandemic. Everyone in schools is expected to wear masks except when eating, drinking or when they are physically active; students should be held in year groups and there should be no large gatherings such as assemblies. No unnecessary visitors are allowed in the schools.

No contact tracking in schools

What has changed, however, is that public health no longer tracks or issues exposure messages related to COVID-19 cases in schools. It is part of a broader shift in the province’s COVID-19 strategy due to the occurrence of infections during this wave, which has put pressure on resources.

Public health now only tracks cases linked to what it has considered to be high-risk settings, including long-term care. Individuals are encouraged to handle their own cases by following isolation guidelines and notifying their own close contacts.

Families are expected to report school absenteeism related to COVID-19 in the same way they would report any other absenteeism; they do not have to state COVID-19 status. Even if a family chooses to share this information, Simony said administrators would keep it confidential as private health information.

As was already the case before COVID-19, school administrators will notify Public Health if absenteeism at a school reaches 10 percent, after which Public Health will investigate further.

Portable HEPA filtration systems like this were recently delivered to all Nova Scotia schools that do not have active ventilation systems. (Robert Short / CBC)

The termination of contact tracking and public reporting of cases in schools has been a contentious issue, and it is one of the reasons why the Nova Scotia Teachers Union has called for continued virtual learning.

Trade unions predict staff is in crisis

NSTU President Paul Wozney said he expects a “gobsmacking” number of teachers will soon be absent because they are sick or isolating themselves while awaiting test results. He said he expects it will lead to school closures.

“The long and short of it is that we do not have enough bodies to cover the teaching when teachers can not be there,” Wozney told CBC Nova Scotia’s Tom Murphy.

CUPE, the union representing around 4,600 support staff in schools across the province, has called for the continuation of virtual learning for the same reason as NSTU.

“What is the plan if there are not enough staff available to drive buses, clean schools, maintain ventilation equipment or work with students with cognitive concerns or behavioral problems?” Lisa de Molitor, chair of the Nova Scotia Board Council of Unions at CUPE, said in a press release.

With personal learning ahead, however, de Molitor said N95 masks should be given to school staff. The Ministry of Education has said staff will be offered three-layer medical masks. Students are provided with 3-layer fabric masks.

Premier Tim Houston has said school shortages will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

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