Nova Scotia schools planning for complete return to classrooms, details coming next week
'Our priority is to have students in school, we know that's where they're going to do their best'
Nova Scotia's education minister says the full plan for a back-to-school reopening in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is coming on Wednesday, as parents say they're frustrated and anxious that the plan has yet to be released.
Zach Churchill said the priority is a 100 per cent return to schools, with contingency plans for reduced capacity and at-home learning depending on virus epidemiology.
"Our priority is to have students in school, we know that's where they're going to do their best. We know that's best for families as well," he told reporters on Thursday.
Earlier this month, Churchill said the province was mulling three back-to-school options for when classes resume in the fall. The options were going back-to-school full-time, reducing attendance to 50 per cent and doing the other half remotely, or students working virtually from home.
Churchill said the details of the contingency plans will be released next week, but the 100 per cent return to school includes full curriculum and assessments.
"We don't know what September will bring with this virus," he said. "As we get into August, we should have a better sense."
28,000 surveys from parents
The release comes ahead of the province's intention to release the plan in late July or early August, after calls from the Official Opposition and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union to see the plan sooner.
"It's good that information will get out to families and teachers, but it feels kind of jarring. The first information about the plan came from the minister's scrum two weeks ago," NSTU president Paul Wozney said Thursday.
"The communication feels uneven to teachers and to families."
He reiterated that the union wanted to see a plan when the last school year ended. Wozney said he hopes the union will have a chance to review the plan before it is released publicly.
"Part of the challenge is there's no clear, right way to go back-to-school based on what's happening around the world," he said.
Churchill said the province consulted organizations including the IWK Health Centre, public health, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, the Public School Administrators Association of Nova Scotia and other support staff unions.
He also said they have received over 28,000 surveys from parents and students.
"[Those] have been very informative in terms of what the experience was like working from home and how we can improve that," he said, adding the plan will be responsive to that feedback.
Wozney said teachers were not consulted directly on feedback for how teaching from home went and anything given to the province was done through their school's principal.
"In terms of data collection, any time you add a third party who was a filter for what people mean ... it can really skew your results," he said.
Clare Bilek is one of dozens of parents who penned an open letter to the premier over concerns about what might happen with schools this fall.
The mother of four told CBC Nova Scotia News at 6 the pandemic was difficult, challenging and stressful when it came to her children's learning experience.
"The longer it went on the harder it became actually. With four children, we did have challenges with having devices available when children needed them," she said.
"The lack of actual teaching that occurred — there was lots of work, but not a lot of interaction with the teacher."
She said not counting grades led to a drop in her kids' interest, especially for her older children.
She said she understands the schools and Education Department did the best they could, "but we know better now."
"We hope there are plans for all contingencies going forward, including making sure that teachers have IT support and the technology they need to deliver education for the kids," Bilek said.
Food programs, pre-primary
Churchill said the plan includes having food programs in place at schools, which he said are important for students and families to be able to access.
The reopening plan also includes their commitment to have pre-primary programs available across the province, which Churchill said will help with child-care options for four-year-olds.
The minister said they have ordered personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and additional cleaning supplies for schools.
Erica Baker, a registered psychologist and mother of three, is among a group of concerned parents who joined forces to create an online resource called COVID Education Plan NS, which sent the letter to the premier this week.
"My eight-year-old began having temper tantrums daily and anger outbursts, and my Grade 11 student, who's one of the most responsible kids that I know, just stopped doing his work," Baker told CBC's Information Morning this week.
And she said she's not alone.
"What we're hearing over and over and over again is that the children are struggling to complete home learning. They are struggling with being engaged, but they're also struggling with their parents," she said.
Given the low number of cases of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia right now, Baker said her group recommends bringing kids back to classrooms in some form.
"Maybe there could be smaller groups of kids who are being taught in gyms or in lunchrooms and music rooms and churches, community centres ... but that there's an opportunity for the kids to be watched over to make sure that they're actually doing the work that they need to do," she said.
It's also important to have a plan that's flexible so it can change if the number of cases rise, said Baker.
If students do have to return to learning from home, she said more resources are needed for parents and teachers.
"We're going to need teaching assistants, resource teachers, [it] could be substitute teachers, EAs, behavioural consultants," she said. "We need as many people to support our students as possible."
School administrators concerned about safety
Tim Simony, chair of the Public School Administrators Association of Nova Scotia, said he understands it takes time to develop a plan, but he hopes it's thorough and provides clear direction to administrators so that it "doesn't involve each principal reinventing the wheel."
"There are so many practices that exist in schools that will have to be re-examined, reconsidered," Simony said, adding that public health rules will need to be clearly communicated to students.
"Managing that in terms of schools from pre-primary all the way through to Grade 12 is going to need some thought because students move through school differently than people do through groceries stores or restaurants," he said.
Wozney said he hopes the plan includes clear "triggers" detailing what will set off the contingency plans.
"What point, with what infection rates, do we lock it down a little more or open it up more?"
He also said they've raised the issue of classroom sizes and physical distancing issues, especially at older and smaller buildings.
Baker encourages parents who are concerned about their kids education to have their say by taking a survey on the group's website.
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With files from CBC's Information Morning, Nova Scotia News at 6