Nova Scotia

Doctors, teachers' union call for masks to stay on in N.S. schools

Dr. Andrew Lynk said the province should heed what’s happening in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, where outbreaks of COVID-19 are already causing the shutdown of schools. Masks are set to become optional in schools in Nova Scotia as of Sept. 20.

Mandate for mask use in schools is scheduled to end Sept. 20

Dr. Andrew Lynk is a member of Nova Scotia's pediatric advisory group and chief of pediatrics at the IWK Health Centre. (CBC)

One of the members of Nova Scotia's pediatric advisory group says he and other members of the team hope students, teachers and staff continue to wear masks in schools even after the mandate ends next week.

Dr. Andrew Lynk said the province should heed what's happening in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, where outbreaks of COVID-19 are already causing the shutdown of schools.

On Monday, New Brunswick made masks mandatory for all students in schools and on buses for the next two weeks. Masks are set to become optional in schools in Nova Scotia as of Sept. 20.

Lynk, who is also the chief of pediatrics at the IWK Health Centre but did not speak in that capacity, said the goal of the province's back-to-school plan is keeping kids in class as much as possible and minimizing risk to their health and safety. That means being nimble, he said.

Nova Scotia is scheduled to enter Phase 5 of its reopening plan on Wednesday. The province announced 73 new cases on Monday.

Prior to the release of the new numbers, Lynk said he understands the epidemiology and vaccination rates might support easing public health restrictions in the community, but he thinks it would be prudent to keep using masks in schools at least until early October, at which point there will be a better sense of the effects of the delta variant on the province.

"So we don't start having all these cancellations, which are so hard on kids," he said.

"They're hard for learning, for supports, and they're also hard on families who have to scramble because both parents may be working, for example."

Paul Wozney is president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. (CBC)

The president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union agrees.

Paul Wozney said that although masks in class can create challenges early in the school year if temperatures are high, the protective measures they provide are too important to give up right now.

"Masking needs to remain in place until we are deeply confident that we can relax masking guidelines and that schools will remain open safely and sustainably, and that we're not going to have to close them and move to remote learning," he said.

For Wozney and Lynk, a key concern is that the COVID-19 vaccine has yet to be approved for people younger than 12, meaning there are large groups of people coming together each day in schools who don't have the option of the best level of protection.

"This is the largest single gathering on a daily basis of unvaccinated people anywhere in the province," said Wozney.

"For that reason, we need to act cautiously to make sure that schools remain safe places for kids."

Public Health monitoring the situation

A spokesperson for the Education Department said Public Health continues to monitor epidemiology and is in regular contact with other Canadian jurisdictions.

"As we've said all along, our Back to School Plan is responsive to Public Health guidance and we are able and willing to adapt to changing COVID-19 circumstances," Jenna MacQueen said in an email.

"We have a layered health approach to our schools, and our core public health measures remain in place. We strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated who can, we want staff and students to stay home if they feel unwell, everyone needs to sanitize or wash their hands regularly in school, and we continue to clean high-touch surfaces in our schools."

A COVID-19 briefing is scheduled for Tuesday.

'Let's be smart about it'

The teachers' union planned to send a letter Monday to Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang asking him to keep the mask mandate in place for schools for the foreseeable future.

Wozney is concerned that even with a strong recommendation from Public Health, allowing the use of masks to become optional could open the door to conflict in schools.

Meanwhile, Lynk said that even if the mandate is lifted next week, the message from the advisory group would remain clear.

"Let's be smart about it. It's up to you now as individuals. Protect yourself, your families, your learning and let's just keep them on for another month or so and let's just see what happens and give the policymakers a bit more intelligence from real-world experience on how to really fine tune these decisions."

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