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Return to in-class learning gets mixed reaction in Nova Scotia

Click to play video: 'Study suggests COVID-19 transmission risk in schools is low' Study suggests COVID-19 transmission risk in schools is low
WATCH: Students are scheduled to return to in-person learning in Nova Scotia on Monday. While the number of daily cases are no longer hitting record heights, they’re still among the highest the province has seen in the pandemic and that has parents concerned. As Alicia Draus reports, however, new research suggests that the transmission risk in schools is low – Jan 16, 2022

After a full month at home, Nova Scotia students will be returning to in-classroom learning on Monday.

Students got an early start to the Christmas break when the Province changed the last day from Dec. 21 to the 17 amid a rise in COVID-19 cases, driven by the Omicron variant.

Read more: COVID-19: N.S. reporting nearly 700 new lab-confirmed cases, students set to return to schools

The new year was then supposed to start back on Jan. 6, but that too got switched. The province later announced the first week of learning would be online.

But as of Monday, it’s back to in-person instruction and parents are having mixed feelings.

Halifax parent Jennifer Arnold said she hasn’t yet decided if she’ll be sending her two oldest back to school, as she has two toddlers at home.

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“This is the most anxious I’ve been in the whole pandemic,” she said.

“They need socialization, they need their peers, they need the in-person learning absolutely.  But at what cost? At the cost of potentially bringing it home to our babies?”

Arnold said while she understands how important it is for kids to go to school, she would prefer if Nova Scotia used a hybrid model so families could decide what works best for them.

“I feel like I’m having to choose between my older kids’ education and my younger kids’ health,” she said.

While the Omicron variant is relatively new, attending school during a pandemic is not. Students returned full-time to the classroom in September, and while some schools did temporarily move to online learning, the majority did not.

Between September and December, 140 schools across the province identified COVID exposures at school, but only seven schools closed down.

Dr. Strang has said multiple times that school is a safe place for students and that transmission in schools is not a high risk.

The province has never released any data detailing transmissions in schools but a research project in British Columbia looked at just that.

Between April and June 2021, they observed COVID-19 cases in schools in Vancouver and followed contact tracing to see how and where the virus was being passed along. The study found the majority of transmissions — 90 per cent — occurred in households.

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Read more: Canadian students struggle as Omicron variant disrupts school year

School transmission was nearly non-existent.

“In our contact tracing portion of the study, out of 229 close contacts, just three infections,” said Pascal Lavoie, a pediatrician and scientist with BC’s Children Hospital.

“This data tells us schools are safe,” said Lavoie.

“To think that we would have significantly reduced risk to children in closing schools makes very little sense scientifically.”

Lavoie also noted that the risk needs to be balanced with the impact closing schools can have on children, something that pediatricians across the country are sounding the alarm on.

Lavoie said they are seeing impacts of school closures in children’s hospitals.

“In terms of mental health, in terms of physical health and those risks are too high to afford closing schools again,” he added.

On Jan. 6 when students were meant to return to the classroom in Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Pediatric Advisory Group posted an open letter saying it supported the government’s plan for return to in-school learning and that “the risks to children and youth from not providing in-class learning outweigh the current risks related to COVID.”

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Click to play video: 'Hundreds of Nova Scotia surgeries cancelled as Omicron surges' Hundreds of Nova Scotia surgeries cancelled as Omicron surges
Hundreds of Nova Scotia surgeries cancelled as Omicron surges – Jan 13, 2022

Teachers’ union has doubts

As parents like Arnold try to decide if they’re comfortable sending their kids back to school or not, the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union said he has “severe doubts” whether schools will even remain open until the end of the week.

Paul Wozney says he believes the government has been “overselling” its plan to help schools remain open as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to sweep through the province.

Read more: Omicron may seem mild, but we can’t ‘let it rip,’ experts say

Wozney said schools had to be closed earlier than anticipated before the holiday break when staffing levels couldn’t be maintained with daily case numbers for COVID-19 that were much lower than they are now.

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He said the province should exercise caution and continue with remote learning until case numbers are more manageable as has been done in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Education Minister Becky Druhan told reporters following a cabinet meeting Thursday that plans are in place to respond to whatever operational challenges arise. Druhan says that includes assigning administrative staff from school districts to the classroom in the event of teacher shortages due to illness or the need to self-isolate.

No more contact tracing in schools

Although the province is currently dealing with a shortage of rapid tests, on Friday, the premier announced that it will be distributing about 25,000 tests to the nearly 400 schools across the province.

The tests are to be used for students and staff who arrive to school with symptoms or develop symptoms while at school.

While in previous waves, the province notified parents when schools had an exposure, they have taken the exposure list offline and have announced they will no longer continue with contact tracing in schools.

Students will be advised to wear three-ply cloth masks, with one mask being distributed to all students when they return to school.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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