Nova Scotia is promising a return to a “more familiar routine” when students head back to school next month.
Premier-designate Tim Houston and Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health, released a back-to-school plan on Monday that includes a “commitment to vaccination,” sanitization and the use of masks when the school year begins on Sept. 7.
While masks will be required in school buildings and buses at the start of the year, the province is slated to move into Phase 5 of its reopening plan on Sept. 15. At that point, schools will transition to making masks optional.
During a briefing with reporters on Monday, Strang said teachers and staff have had two difficult years, but that “this year should be easier.”
“If we keep our community safe, our schools will be safe. We need to balance the risk of COVID 19 with the impact COVID has had on young Nova Scotians,” he said.
“In-person schooling is vital for child and youth development. We need school to be as familiar as possible while keeping staff and students as safe as possible.”
So, what will the new school year look like?
Full in-class learning will be the goal, while outdoor learning, small groups and more use of technology will continue.
Students can expect to resume extracurricular activities, such as music classes, band, and sports.
Even the smallest routines will return: the use of cafeterias, lockers and cubbies. As well, non-essential visitors will be allowed back into the buildings.
And for the youngest students who are venturing to school for the first time, parents and guardians of pre-primary and primary students will be able to visit schools on the first day.
Meanwhile, the province vows to keep “ongoing inspections and maintenance” of school ventilation systems.
“My overriding message to educators and to to parents and to students themselves is we’ll do everything to keep you safe,” Houston said, who was speaking at his first provincial news briefing since the Aug. 17 election.
“And right now with the plan we have today, we feel that that keeps people safe.”
In a statement, pediatric infectious disease physician Dr. Jeannette Comeau with the IWK Health Centre called the plan a “layered approach” to infection prevention and control.
“Schools have not been a significant source of infection transmission and I’m confident the plan for this year has appropriate measures that will continue to keep students and staff safe,” she said.
As an indication of the toll of the pandemic, the province also notes it will be providing “timely and appropriate” mental health supports.
“This pandemic has illustrated the importance of keeping our children and youth in school, where they have access to supports and programs that benefit their learning, as well as their social, physical and mental well-being,” said Dr. Andrew Lynk, the chief of pediatrics at the IWK Health Centre, in a statement.
“Our Provincial Pediatric Advisory Group continues to be engaged with public health and education partners to ensure our schools remain safe spaces for our children to learn, develop and grow.”
The province notes that additional public health measures will be brought in if COVID-19 case numbers rise.
If the COVID-19 situation reaches a point where even more measures are warranted, students will move to at-home learning, which will look similar to the model used in the 2020-21 school year.
Nova Scotia Teachers Union reacts
Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney told Global News he is glad that masking will continue to be an option to keep everyone safe once students and staff return to the classrooms.
“I know there will be a lot of staff and a lot of students relieved that restrictions on how learning and teaching can occur have been lifted,” said Wozney.
The full resumption of music classes, band, sports and extracurricular activities will especially bring a lot of excitement, he added.
“Those tend to be classes that make students want to get up and go to school. So the fact that they’re going to be able to carry on with very minor restrictions, is it going to be a big plus for a lot of students and staff.”
Wozney’s one major concern was in regards to the late release of the plan, but said there is “some cautious optimism” with the decisions made.
In the meantime, Wozney said it is going to be important for public health to be very clear, timely and transparent about how it will handle each COVID-19 case that might come out of a school, so that the fears of families, students, and staff can be addressed.
Phase 5 target set, border restrictions for New Brunswick
The province also announced Monday that Nova Scotia is set to move into the final phase – Phase 5 — of its reopening plan on Sept. 15.
At that point, border measures will continue while “most” other public health restrictions are lifted.
Strang has repeatedly said that Phase 5 would begin when 75 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated and the epidemiology is favourable.
On Monday, Strang said cases in the province are manageable and there is no sign of community spread currently.
“But it’s only a matter of time before the fourth wave is here in Nova Scotia too,” he warned.
Currently, about 70 per cent of Nova Scotians are fully vaccinated with two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Canadian travelers from outside of Atlantic Canada will continue to follow an isolation policy based on vaccination status and testing.
As of this Wednesday at 8 a.m., however, the border policy will also apply to people coming from New Brunswick due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in that province. Workers and students who frequently cross the border with New Brunswick, and those who “need to make quick trips” will not need to self-isolate so long as they follow the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick travel protocol. However, those moving to Nova Scotia or coming for vacation will have to complete the Nova Scotia Safe Check-in and self-isolate based on vaccination status and testing.
New Brunswick reported 58 new cases over the weekend and has 173 active cases. Strang acknowledged during the conference that recent Nova Scotia cases have been connected to the outbreak in New Brunswick.
Houston said he has been in contact with New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs about the changes, and said that both provinces are “on the same page.”
“I don’t want people to lose sight of the fact that these restrictions are for unvaccinated people. So that’s a cohort of people. It’s not for everyone,” he said.
As of Sept. 15, the only restrictions that will remain in place for the general population are those related to management of COVID-19 cases. In other words, the province will still test, track and trace positive cases and require people who test positive to self-isolate.
Strang said restrictions such as gathering limits, mask mandates and social distancing rules will no longer be necessary.
“It’s time to start living more with COVID even if we see rising case numbers that would have previously meant provincewide restrictions,” Strang said.
“Our vaccine coverage means we can carry on with only border restrictions and maybe if necessary, targeted local restrictions.”
— With a file from Aya Al-Hakim