Educators, parents rally for answers about Nova Scotia's back-to-school plan
Teachers say physical distancing is not possible in small classrooms
Educators, parents and concerned citizens gathered outside the Province House on Monday, calling for clarity and improvements to Nova Scotia's back-to-school plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We'd like a plan. We don't really feel that saying, 'We're going to go with a full open on September 8' is a plan. That's what school looked like last year," said Christine Emberley, a Halifax teacher and parent who organized the Safe September rally.
In July, Education Minister Zach Churchill released the back-to-school plan which will allow a 100 per cent return to learning as usual, with increased health and safety protocols, enhanced cleaning of schools and buses and more spacing between students.
But Emberley said many questions have been left unanswered since the plan was announced.
She said she has been left wondering about how cleaning between classes will work, how lunch hours will be scheduled, how drop off and pick up will work and how physical distancing will be possible in small classrooms.
She said most classrooms have up to 30 students and the minimum requirement for physical distancing is one metre.
"If you're in a classroom, there is not one metre between desks. Sometimes you don't have a foot between desks … so how are those classrooms going to be set up?" she said.
Emberley said making masks mandatory in schools would help solve that problem.
Masks not mandatory
The province's back-to-school plan said masks will not be required but are encouraged when physical distancing isn't possible.
"How come the public has to wear masks everywhere they go and stay six feet away but in a school full of adults and children, we don't? I didn't understand that at all," said Lynn Coolen, a teacher with the Halifax Regional Centre for Education.
Teachers at the rally say they are hoping the Nova Scotia government will adjust its plan to enforce mask use, reduce class sizes and work to improve ventilation in schools.
Bursting the bubble
Ben Sichel, a member of Educators for Social Justice, which helped organize the rally, said he's concerned about the government's plan.
"It just seemed like the plan was to go back to school as normal but with hand sanitizer," Sichel said.
He said one of his biggest concerns is if the Atlantic bubble will be opened to the rest of Canada.
"A lot of parents and a lot of people in education are really, really worried that if [you burst the bubble], we're going to get the virus in our province again in no time flat and at that point, it's going to make school really, really dangerous," he said.
Larry Haiven, a member of Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, said he's concerned about the uncertainty of the plan.
"Since they announced the back to school — I hesitate to call it a plan, but whatever it is — people are worried. People are worried about their children," he said.
"It's sort of a massive social and health-care experiment with our kids."
Emberley said she's hoping the province will consider the questions educators brought to the rally before September so the plan can be adjusted.
"We're not saying that we have all the solutions," she said.
"What we're saying is, 'Government, you have a couple of weeks. We'd really like you to put some thought into whether or not a full open from the get go is the best thing to do.'"
Violet MacLeod, a spokesperson with the Department of Education, said in an email that the back-to-school plan was developed after receiving feedback from more than 28,000 parents, students and teachers, as well as advice from Public Health, pediatricians and psychologists at the IWK Health Centre.
She said the province is implementing a layered approach to keep students safe by staggering recesses and lunches, cohorting classes in elementary schools, providing separate exits and entrances and increasing signage about good health practice like washing hands.
"We are also creating space between students within their classrooms, requiring masks in common areas for high school students and on buses for all students, and are providing [personal protective equipment] and sanitizer for our schools," MacLeod said.
She said the plan will be modified if the epidemiology of COVID-19 changes.
With files from Colleen Jones, Maritime Noon