Nova Scotia

When do kids have to wear masks in school? And more COVID-19 school questions, answered

School in Nova Scotia begins Sept. 8, but the experience will look very different this year amid COVID-19. With questions swirling around what students and parents should expect, CBC News has compiled a detailed list of questions and answers.

My kid has a COVID-19 symptom, what should I do? How will bus rides work? How will recess and lunch work?

In Nova Scotia, kids in grades 4-12 must wear masks in school when physical distancing is not possible in hallways and classrooms. (LM Otero/The Associated Press)

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  • This information is current as of Sept.1, 2020

Your questions:

Q: What happens in September? Is everyone going back to the classroom?

Yes, the plan is to have all schools reopen full time Sept. 8 with new measures in place.

There will be staggered lunch, class and recess times to cut down on the amount of interaction in hallways and common areas. Schools will also assign separate exits and entrances for various classes, and add directional markings like arrows to control flow and help everyone remember to physically distance.

According to the province's plan, pre-primary classes will have up to 20 children with two staff, with a maximum of 24 children and three staff. These classes will act as cohorts, meaning the same children and staff stay together each day as a small bubble. There is a goal of learning and playing outside for at least 40 per cent of the day when possible.

P-12 classes will continue with regular cap sizes and desks will be spaced at least one metre apart, but ideally two metres. Cohorting will also be done, mostly for younger grades. Teachers are also encouraged to hold class outside when possible.

Q: How often should staff and students clean their hands?

All staff and students are required to clean their hands when they enter school, before eating and after eating, and regularly throughout the day.

If soap and water is not available and/or hands are not visibly soiled, hand sanitizer provided in schools can be used.

Q: Who needs to wear a mask, and when?

It depends on the circumstances and the grade a student is in.

All students who travel by bus, regardless of their grade, have to wear a mask while on the bus.

Students in P-3 do not have to wear masks.

All students in Grade 4 and up have to wear non-medical masks while at school. Evidence shows kids 10 and up are more likely to transmit the coronavirus than younger children.

There are exceptions that allow students in Grade 4 and up not to wear masks:

  • When they are sitting at their desk and the desk is separated from others by at least two metres.
  • During indoor physical activity or when they are eating and drinking.
  • During outdoor activities.
  • In hallways and other common areas when two metres of physical distancing is practised.

The province recommends that staff who move between classrooms as part of their jobs should strongly consider wearing a mask at all times, regardless of physical distancing.

Q: Will parents have to buy masks for their kids?

No. All students and staff will receive two free cloth masks at the beginning of the school year. Disposable masks will also be available if a student forgets or loses their mask during the school day.

Q: How will students who need extra support be accommodated?

Education Minister Zach Churchill said on Aug.14 about 85 new support staff — mostly teaching assistants, specialized teachers and guidance counsellors — have been hired.

A second round of hires will also happen some time in the fall, after teachers have assessed the needs of students, with an eye on how they've been affected by the pandemic.

The province has budgeted an extra $15 million for inclusive education in the 2020-21 budget, but no details have been provided on how that money would be spent.

Student services will continue to be provided in all responses. Tele-education will continue to be used so that students and families have access to specialists like school psychologists, counsellors and speech language pathologists.

Q: My kid has a COVID-19 symptom, what should I do?

Parents and guardians need to monitor their child for COVID-19 symptoms every day before sending them to school.

If a student or staff member has a symptom, they must stay home, even if it's a mild symptom.

A daily checklist will be provided to everyone and it says 811 should be contacted if someone is experiencing symptoms to see if they should get COVID-19 testing.

If a test is required, students must wait for results before returning to school. If testing is not needed, they can return once their symptoms have been resolved for 24 hours. If a person has a fever, they can return to the school once it's been resolved for 24 hours without using medication.

Students with chronic symptoms like a cough or runny nose due to a medical condition such as asthma or allergies don't have to stay home.

The daily checklist staff and students must go through before heading to school. (Province of Nova Scotia )

Q: What happens if someone gets sick at school?

If people feel ill, they need to go home. There should be a space at each school where they can isolate until they can be taken home.

Staff can remain with younger children if they wear appropriate protective equipment. The school will document who came into contact with the individual and bubble those individuals to limit potential spread.

Q: What happens if COVID-19 is detected in my kid's class or school?

Schools, with the support of public health, will notify families as soon as they become aware of a COVID-19 case, along with what measures will need to be taken.

There is no universal plan for what those measures look like. Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang has said cases will be dealt with as they come up and the response will take into account the epidemiology of the community and the surrounding areas, and the source of infection.

If cohorting is effective, public health should be able to identify close contacts of any infected individuals and have those people self-isolate for 14 days without disrupting other parts of the school or community.

Q: How will bus rides work?

All students and drivers must wear masks.

While riding school buses, the plan says children and students from the same household must sit together and there should be empty seats left between kids where possible.

The plan suggests opening windows to increase ventilation, and buses will be cleaned at least twice daily. Daily passenger logs should also be kept.

Q: Will physical education and music classes be back?

These subjects will come back this fall, but will look different.

The back-to-school plan says that gym classes will be held outdoors as often as possible, and activities that require students to come into contact with one another "will be limited."

Students can remove their masks during indoor physical activity when a mask cannot be worn, and they aren't required outside.

In an email Thursday, a provincial spokesperson said recommendations for music and band in schools are being created. Public health is working with the province to review the recommendations.

Federal guidelines for music classes suggest physically distancing students and playing outside, if possible. Ideally, instruments should not be shared, but cleaned between uses if they have to be.

Q: How will recess and lunch work?

The province is spending $1.2 million on lunch monitors to accommodate staggering lunch times throughout the day.

Schools will also continue their breakfast and lunch programs with some adjustments.

In pre-primary, children can continue to bring their lunches daily from home, but warming up the food at school won't be allowed.

In P-12 grades, students will eat lunch in their classrooms with their regular class or cohort of students. This may look a little different for high schoolers, but the emphasis will be on similar groups sticking together while distancing.

If any student requires food from the cafeteria, their meals will be delivered to their classroom.

Students will be allowed to use the playground equipment. They also don't have to wear masks for outdoor activities.

Q: Will there be tests and report cards?

Mostly yes. Report cards will be issued for all subjects. Parents are encouraged to sign up for the parent portal in PowerSchool so they can get more information and receive e-report cards.

But there will be no fall provincial assessments this year. A decision on spring provincial assessments will be made at a later date.

Provincial exams in English 10, Français 10, and Mathematics/Mathematiques 10 will take place if all students have been in school.

A determination on provincial exams in a blended or at-home learning model will be made when needed.

Q: How do I know the school will be properly cleaned?

Schools will be cleaned daily with an extra emphasis on disinfecting surfaces and common areas, including classrooms. High-touch surfaces will also be cleaned throughout the day.

The province has committed $8.7 million to hire more custodial staff this September, and $1.4 million to extend the hours of pre-primary teachers to allow them time for cleaning.

On Aug. 26, Premier Stephen McNeil said the province's share of $2 billion in new federal money will be $48 million. He said some of those funds could help pay for extra sanitization and the cleaning of schools and buses.

Regional centres of education will create plans for enhanced cleaning and disinfecting procedures, the province said.

A child practises physical distancing while washing hands ahead of a lesson at a school in London. (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Q: Can parents or other visitors drop in to schools?

Not usually. Schools will limit outside visitors, including parents and guardians. Dropoffs and pickups will be done outside each school, and people will not be allowed to gather in groups outside either.

Only visitors that are required to provide essential services will be allowed in, like external program providers, licensing officers, public health officers, delivery personnel and maintenance workers.

Parents and guardians who absolutely need to enter a school should be treated as essential visitors.

The plan also said other organizations using schools after hours will be limited.

People who should not be entering schools at all include:

  • Anyone experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.
  • People who have travelled outside Atlantic Canada in the previous 14 days.
  • Anyone who is a close contact of a confirmed case.
  • People awaiting a COVID-19 test result.

Q: Are sports and clubs coming back?

Six sports — hockey, soccer, football, basketball, rugby and cheer — can only practise and cannot play games, according to a decision made by the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation (NSSAF) in late August.

Three sports — baseball, golf and softball — are allowed to resume competition. Other sports, including volleyball, will have to be modified for games to be played.

That may change later in the year, depending on recommendations from public health.

Schools can offer in-school clubs and activities that are considered safe and feasible. Public health rules should be followed. But large gatherings, assemblies, sporting events and school social events will not be allowed.

According to federal guidelines, schools should choose activities where physical distancing can be achieved and held outdoors if possible, and kids should not be sharing equipment or water bottles.

The province says field trips will be "avoided."

Q: Proper ventilation is key to preventing coronavirus spread. How is that being addressed?

The education minister said on Aug.14 that ventilation systems are being assessed at each school to ensure they are working properly, and windows are being checked to make sure they open fully.

On Aug. 26, Premier Stephen McNeil said the province's share of $2 billion in new federal money will be $48 million. He said some of those funds could help pay for ventilation systems that need to be updated.

Where windows are the only ventilation system at some older schools, Churchill said they can remain open in winter because "we have heating in all our schools."

Education Minister Zach Churchill says ventilation systems are being assessed at each school to ensure they are working properly. (CBC)

Q: Can students visit the library?

No. Students can still access library resources, but groups of kids cannot go to the library. Instead, books and other materials will be brought to them in their classrooms.

Q: What happens if there's a COVID-19 spike, or the coronavirus changes?

The province has two backup plans for how to handle education if public health thinks it's safer to move some kids out of the classroom.

Plan B: A partial or "blended" model would mean students in pre-primary and grades P–8 would stay in the classroom, while those in the upper grades, 9-12, would learn from home, with partial in-school programming for some kids.

For those still in schools, the extra space would mean:

  • Reduced class sizes.
  • Two metres of physical distancing.
  • Cohorting strategies.

Students at home would be supported with:

  • Better access to electronic devices.
  • The ability to attend school if they do not have internet access.
  • Some scheduled in-school classes.
  • The ability to book meeting times with teachers and support staff.

All staff would still work from schools.

Plan C: The at-home learning plan would come after direction from the chief medical officer of health, and would mean remote teaching and learning for all students affected.

There would be support for students who are learning at home.

Depending on how the pandemic evolves, the school system may need to switch between these three plans quickly. If there's a spike in one region, that family of schools might go to at-home learning while the rest of the province stays in class.

Q: How will kids learn from home if they don't have computers or tablets?

To help address the issues that came up in learning from home this past spring, the province has spent $4 million on purchasing 14,000 computers that will be given to students without devices at home.

Students without access to high-speed internet would receive assignments either via telephone or a USB thumb drive loaded with learning materials that would be returned with completed work.

Q: Are there enough teachers to ensure reduced class sizes under a blended model?

The plan states the province has the "existing capacity" to bring in more teachers already in the school system, who might be assigned to other duties like developing curriculum or working on projects in the department.

The province is also spending an extra $29 million for more substitute teachers this year. But since there's a shallow pool of qualified substitute teachers, the education minister has said the province would be waiving bachelor of education requirements and bringing in "other qualified people."

The Education Department later clarified that special permits for substitute teachers can be issued to people with bachelor degrees or who are studying in a bachelor of education program.

Q: Where will students keep belongings?

Lockers will not be used, so students must plan ahead and keep their belongings in their own book bags.

Q: Will students still be able to share art supplies and textbooks?

No. The province has spent $500,000 on school supplies including pencils, pens and erasers for students who don't have their own.

CBC News specifically asked the province whether there will be more funding for books and art supplies, but a spokesperson only referred to the $500,000 earmarked so far.

If the sharing of anything like learning equipment or technology is necessary, the province's plan says equipment must be cleaned between uses.

Q. How will before- and after-school programs work?

Programs offered by the YMCA, EXCEL or the province are allowed to have cohorts or groups of 15 kids without physical distancing. But, different groups of 15 must physically distance from each other.

Q. Are international students coming back?

The province told the Nova Scotia International Student Program on Aug. 21 that no international students are allowed to return to middle and high schools this fall.

This covers the September 2020 to January 2021 semester. The province will make a decision in December regarding the second semester.

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