Nova Scotia released its long-awaited back-to-school plan Wednesday, which aims to have all elementary and high school students in classrooms by Sept. 8.
Education Minister Zach Churchill said while the objective is for schools to return to 100 per cent capacity in the fall, the plan includes measures to address the advent of a second wave of COVID-19.
“We need to be prepared in case COVID does affect our schools,” Churchill told reporters Wednesday. “Our plan allows us to deal with one school or many. We will take our direction from Public Health and we will be precise and flexible.”
Churchill said a full reopening in September is the right thing to do.
“Health experts, the IWK Health Centre, Public Health, psychologists and health professionals all agree that the best place for children is in the classroom,” he said.
The government’s plan only permits students and staff to enter school buildings. Lecture rooms will be reorganized to increase spacing between desks and students will be encouraged to limit contact with peers outside their own classroom.
When possible, teachers are asked to move their classes outdoors. Staff and students will be required to wear a mask in common areas where physical distancing is difficult, such as hallways and school buses, but not inside classrooms.
Students are also asked to bring their own computers to school and the provincial government says it acquired an additional 14,000 computers at a cost of $4 million to support those with limited access to technology.
Children without high-speed internet would receive assignments either via telephone or a portable data storage device.
If a COVID-19 outbreak occurs during the academic year, schools will move to a blended learning model with smaller class sizes and home learning for older students. And if public health authorities issue a stay-at-home order, all learning and teaching will be done remotely.
Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health, told a news conference Wednesday there are no specific health indicators that would prompt authorities to order students home from classes.
“We need to look at the individual circumstances around those cases … and apply appropriate measures,” Strang told reporters. He said the province’s current epidemiological situation supports a full return to schools.
“On the one hand, as we reopen our economy, our society, our community and schools, we do increase the risk of transmission of COVID-19,” Strang said. “But on the other hand, keeping everything tightly closed down also has substantive risks and is not something we can do for the long term.”
Churchill said the plan was developed from results of an online survey of more than 28,000 parents and students, with input from the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.
In a news release Wednesday, union president Paul Wozney said the government’s plan should be considered “a start,” adding there are still a number of questions that need to be addressed.
Wozney said he’d like more detail regarding what schools will do to stop COVID-19 outbreaks, and about what criteria will determine when schools move to a blended model of in-class and at-home learning.
Churchill needs to commit to providing regular public updates, he added, so families are kept up-to-date as the situation evolves.
“These families deserve the same courtesy from government that the business community has received in recent months,” said Wozney. “People making decisions that could impact the health and welfare of so many families need to be much more transparent and accountable as we approach September.”
The Opposition Progressive Conservatives also said Wednesday the government’s plan lacks detail.
“With only five weeks left before school,” Tory education critic Tim Halman said in a statement, “parents aren’t sure which of the scenarios will be implemented, what circumstances will trigger which scenario or when the final decision will be made.”
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