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Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill speaks during a news conference in Halifax, on Jan. 24, 2018.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

Nova Scotia has changed its rules for the use of non-medical masks in schools, announcing Friday that new federal guidelines require younger students to wear them when classes resume Sept. 8.

When the province unveiled its back-to-school plan July 22, the mask requirement was limited to high school students.

Education Minister Zach Churchill, however, said all students in Grades 4 to 12 will now be required to wear a mask while inside school – except when they are seated at desks that face the same direction and are two metres apart. Masks must also be worn in hallways and other common areas if a two-metre distance cannot be maintained.

“Everyone is understandably anxious about the unknowns that are coming in the fall,” Churchill told a news conference. “As new information is known, we will adapt the plan in place.”

Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said the change reflects new scientific evidence that indicates children as young as 10 can spread COVID-19 as efficiently as adults.

Strang said he is aware that many parents are feeling fear and anxiety over the reopening of the province’s schools. “This is quite normal,” he told reporters. “COVID-19 is going to be here for a long time.”

Strang said COVID-19 will show up in the province’s schools, but he stressed that the government has the tools to keep the infection rate low. “We do this all the time with a range of communicable diseases.”

Despite the risk, Strang said students should return to the classroom because that environment is important for their social and intellectual development.

Churchill said masks and hand sanitizer are starting to arrive at schools, adding that all students and staff will receive two free reusable cloth masks. Disposable masks will be made available to students who come to school without a face covering.

The education minister also announced Friday $40 million in new funding to hire additional substitute teachers and school custodians, to buy more school supplies and extend the workday of early childhood educators.

Every school’s ventilation system will be assessed to ensure the equipment is operating properly, Churchill added. He said officials will also be looking at the condition of the windows in older schools that have no other means of bringing fresh air into the building.

Churchill said it’s possible the windows in older schools will be left open all winter.

“We have heating systems in all of our schools,” he said. “Ventilation is important, based on the recommendations we’re getting from public health. The windows … can open a little bit. You can open them up a lot. I’m sure the level of opening will be adjusted depending … (on) the weather outside.”

On Thursday, the Ontario government committed $50 million to upgrade school ventilation systems.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research says it remains unclear if the virus that causes COVID-19 can “hitch a ride” through heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems or how infectious it might be.

Meanwhile, health officials in Nova Scotia reported one new case of COVID-19 Friday – the first confirmed case in the past 11 days. There were no other active cases in the province.

“It’s a reminder that COVID-19 is not gone,” Strang said. “People can’t assume that we can relax.”

The province has reported a total of 1,072 positive cases and 64 deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.

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