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Parents, educators rally in Halifax seeking clarity on Nova Scotia’s back-to-school plan

Parents, educators rally in Halifax seeking clarity on government’s back-to-school plan
WATCH: Dozens of education stakeholders in Nova Scotia rallied outside Province House on Monday, demanding answers on how the government will keep schools safe in the fall. As Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, some say there are holes in the plan that will put students and staff at risk.

Dozens of parents, educators and concerned Nova Scotians rallied outside Province House on Monday, seeking clarity on how elected officials plan to keep students, staff and their families safe when schools reopen in September.

Row upon row, they stood six feet apart, demonstrating how impractically large a classroom would need to be in order to keep students at a safe distance amid the coronavirus pandemic.

They also lined up in single file to show much space is required to walk students from one classroom to another while keeping six feet between them. They took up more than a city block altogether.

“Like everyone, I have a common concern about ventilation, masking and social distancing within the schools,” said elementary school teacher Helen Johnston.

“Who is going to be watching recess and lunch every day? How are the kids going to be moving around in their classroom bubble?”

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Read more: Nova Scotia releases plan for students to return to school in September

The goal of the Safe September Assembly, said organizer and teacher Christine Emberley, was to show Education Minister Zach Churchill “the scope and volume” of questions stakeholders have about the back-to-school plan released last month.

She said teachers are more than willing to go the extra mile to keep students safe in the fall, but they want the same protection afforded to other workers and clear direction on how to enforce the health and safety protocols in place.

“One of the reasons why we’re doing this in the middle of summer before we get back to school is because we really want to give government an opportunity to put our minds at ease and get the proper protocols in place for us,” she explained.

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“We would love to know exactly what kind of events would trigger a school-wide shutdown or a region-wide shutdown so we’re not playing catch-up.”

N.S. teachers say getting students to wear a face covering will be difficult
N.S. teachers say getting students to wear a face covering will be difficult

They called on Churchill to provide education updates twice a week and to answer some of their specific questions about the plan.

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Churchill declined an interview for this story. In a written statement, a department spokesperson said the back-to-school plan was built on the feedback of more than 28,000 parents and students, as well as feedback from teachers and public health officials.

Read more: N.S. parents call for Atlantic bubble to stay ahead of new school year

It features a “layered approach” that includes staggered recesses and lunches, enhanced cleaning protocols, distancing in classrooms, and mandatory masks in hallways and on buses. Each school will also have an isolation space where students who feel unwell can wait to be picked up by the parents.

“Our plan is a responsive one and any of our practices can be modified in the event that the epidemiology of COVID-19 changes,” wrote Violet MacLeod.

“All of the Regional Centres for Education and CSAP (Conseil scolaire acadien provincial) have been communicating with their families and will continue to update them as we approach September.”

N.S. parents worry bursting Atlantic bubble will impact school reopening
N.S. parents worry bursting Atlantic bubble will impact school reopening

MacLeod confirmed the Education Department will provide sanitizer and personal protective equipment (PPE) for all the province’s schools.

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It’s unclear to teachers, however, who is responsible for cleaning and sanitizing classroom equipment, and whether they’ll be able to change their PPE in between classes or one-on-one sessions with students in different bubbles.

Read more: Parents, students have mixed feelings about N.S. back-to-school plan

Many also wondered how staff who work in multiple classrooms and schools per day will be able to respect cohorts and bubbles, and what the isolation expectations are if a student becomes sick.

“I can change up to six and seven students in the run of a day,” said education program assistant Tammy Jakeman. “When I’m changing students I want to know that not only am I protecting myself, but I’m protecting them.”

Opposition politicians from both the Nova Scotia PCs and NDP attended the rally.

They called on the government to quell public anxiety by addressing the concerns and to explain why it’s considered safe for students to gather in classrooms, but it’s still considered unsafe for a handful of elected officials to gather for a legislative committee meeting.