The return to school after an already extended winter break is imminent for Nova Scotia students.
And as it stands, public schools will open to in-class learning on Monday, Jan. 10.
On Monday, Ontario announced it will be moving to online learning later this week, amid a slew of other restrictions to contain the spread of Omicron. New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador had already announced plans for remote learning.
But on the same day, Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health for Nova Scotia, told Global News Morning that the plan is still for students to return to classrooms next week.
“We have to accept that there’s going to be some spread of the virus within schools,” he said. “We are building layers of protection in those schools, but it’s critically important … to have them in school whenever possible.”
He said the province wants to avoid the “significant harms” that happen when kids aren’t in school, and said COVID-19 largely does not produce severe illness among children.
The Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) disagrees, however, and is calling for schools in the province to revert to remote learning on Jan. 10.
The union is also voicing concerns about Public Health’s decision to discontinue contact tracing in schools.
In a news release, the union predicts the move will result in “widespread operational issues that will close schools with little or no notice.”
“Schools are where our communities come together. If our schools are vulnerable to COVID spread, by extension, so are our families, friends and the broader community. Our teachers and other educational workers have been on the front line of the pandemic working with the most vulnerable unvaccinated population in crowded classrooms, with questionable ventilation, no physical distancing and poor masking compliance,” said Paul Wozney, NSTU president, in the release.
“While I hope that I am wrong, the teacher shortage was making it difficult to maintain school operations prior to holiday break, and we expect it is only going to get worse until the current wave recedes.”
On Monday, the province reported 1,020 new infections — which only represents PCR test results completed by the province’s labs. Over the weekend, there were nearly 1,900 new cases reported.
Wozney went on to say in the release that it is “hard to understand” that other Atlantic Canadian provinces with lower case counts and “more stringent in-person learning protections than Nova Scotia” are moving to remote learning while Nova Scotia is vowing to reopen classrooms, while also discontinuing contact tracing.
In an interview with Global News later on Monday, Wozney went on to point out that schools shut down for winter break two days early back in December for operational reasons because so many staff had to isolate. And there’s nothing that leads him to believe the situation has changed.
“There’s no plan to mitigate staff shortages. The plan is, ‘We’re going to open school doors. And if enough people can’t show up, we’ll close the doors and everybody will be at home for the day.’ And if that doesn’t sound like much of a plan to you, it’s because it doesn’t sound like much of a plan to me either,” he said.
The NSTU is encouraging parents to contact their local MLA to voice concerns.
‘Looking at’ ventilation in schools: premier
When asked about ventilation systems in schools during a COVID-19 briefing on Monday, Premier Tim Houston responded that 70 to 80 per cent of schools in the province have “pretty high quality” HVAC systems. For those that do not, he assured Nova Scotians it is an “active” file and is being looked into.
Last week, Education Minister Becky Druhan said upgrades have been made in ventilation systems when necessary, inspection regimes have been put in place and there is 24-hour on-call maintenance support.
While the majority of schools in Nova Scotia do have “active” ventilation systems — which use mechanical fans to promote air circulation ––more than 70 schools across the province rely on “natural” ventilation, according to data from the beginning of the school year compiled from the province’s eight regional centres for education.
“Natural” ventilation, in some cases, would mean opening windows.
When asked about the situation at the briefing, Houston said “procurement discussions” were taking place for ventilation systems in schools that needed it, but admitted it wouldn’t be in place by the time school began.
Wozney said the explanation is unacceptable.
“We’ve heard all the way along that ventilation as a layer of protection, except this is now three consecutive governments that’s been utterly unable to produce proof that ventilation is in fact functioning as intended and that air quality is safe,” Wozney said.
He said both staff and parents deserve to know vital information including specifications for the ventilation systems and inspection results.
“So really, what we have now is a situation where nobody knows if ventilation is a problem or an actual layer of protection,” he said.
“Publishing this information would let everybody know, ‘All right, at my school, it’s not a problem. I could sleep well at night knowing the air quality is good where I work or where my kids attend school.'”
The premier and Strang said they are watching the COVID-19 situation closely and will have another briefing on Wednesday. It was suggested that further restrictions are possible at that point, if warranted.
— with files from Alex Cooke