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Spike in COVID-19 cases renews parent concerns about keeping Halifax-area schools open

Click to play video: 'Spike in COVID-19 cases renews concern about keeping Halifax schools open' Spike in COVID-19 cases renews concern about keeping Halifax schools open
As COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise in the Halifax area, some parents are wondering whether it's time to shut down schools. Reporter Elizabeth McSheffrey speaks with some of them and asks Nova Scotia’s Education Minister how his department is responding to exposures among the student body – Nov 26, 2020

As COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise in the Halifax area, some parents say the provincial government should shut down local schools until the worst of the second wave passes.

More than 150 people responded to the question from Global News on the Facebook page, Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education. Many said the education department should close schools in the province’s epicentre of the pandemic — the Halifax Regional Municipality — until Christmas or later.

Others, however, argued facilities should remain open for children’s mental health, and some called for additional online learning resources that give children the option of staying home.

Read more: Halifax retailers ask shoppers to follow the book with new COVID-19 protocols in place

“I don’t think just having them in school a case hits is the right option,” said Bedford parent of two, Heather Yule, in an interview.

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“For some kids it should be open, for some kids it should be closed, but there should be an option in the middle.”

Yule said she’d like to see more online courses available, and the adoption of a more blended model that accommodates families who have immunocompromised members, or children who may be experiencing anxiety about COVID-19 in the classroom.

When there is an exposure, she added, she’d like to know where in the school it happens, so she can decide whether to send her children back, in the event she disagrees with a Public Health assessment of whether they were close contacts.

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This week, Public Health officials announced new restrictions in the HRM. Those included restaurant dining room and gym closures, reduced capacity at shopping malls and grocery stores, and a reduction in both indoor and outdoor gathering limits.

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Read more: 14 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Nova Scotia on Thursday

Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said he’s concerned that in the wake of those announcements, schools are not being given additional marching orders.

“We’ve just made sweeping changes in every respect of society, and yet we haven’t made any different changes in the way we approach learning in schools,” he told Global News.

“Teachers are very much feeling like an afterthought, like somehow schools have some magical protective force field that keeps COVID out.”

READ MORE: Saint Mary’s University confirms positive COVID-19 case

Since the start of the new school year, there have been four COVID-19 cases at Nova Scotia schools — two at Auburn Drive High School in Cole Harbour, one at Graham Creighton Junior High School in Cherry Brook, and one at Northeast Kings Education Centre in Canning.

Dartmouth parent of three Angela Khan said she’s been following the COVID-19 briefings with Premier Stephen McNeil and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Strang. She said that while she has criticized government openly in the past, she’s confident that the education department has a good handle on COVID-19 exposures in schools.

“At this time, I have not gotten the sense that sending my kids to school is not a safe thing to do,” she explained.

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“The indication hasn’t been that the school itself is what’s leading to that spread, so I mean, if something were to change from Dr. Strang and his offices… then that would be a significant change from what the current stance seems to be.”

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Nova Scotia to close 2 schools after COVID-19 cases reported' Coronavirus: Nova Scotia to close 2 schools after COVID-19 cases reported
Coronavirus: Nova Scotia to close 2 schools after COVID-19 cases reported – Nov 20, 2020

Responding to some parental concerns, Education Minister Zach Churchill said Public Health is handling every COVID-19 exposure in schools on a case-by-case basis, and there is no “threshold” of exposure for closing a school.

Read more: An inside look at how Nova Scotia tests for COVID-19

“We have to trust Public Health to conduct those investigations,” he said.

“They do robust contact tracing and school communities are informed of what’s happening and if there’s a positive case, they’re informed same day — (that) is what we’re going for.”

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Teachers are prepared to move to a blended learning model if necessary, he added, although it’s the “most complicated option logistically.”

He said attendance in HRM schools has remained stable, despite the uptick in local community COVID-19 cases.

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