Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia to spend $40M on public school reopening amid COVID-19

Province to hire more substitute teachers, custodial staff and lunch monitors. All students in Grade 4 and up will be required to wear masks unless seated at their desk, and the desk allows for two-metres of distance between them and others.

All students in Grade 4 and up now required to wear masks unless at distanced desks

Education Minister Zach Churchill. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Nova Scotia is spending $40 million to try to make schools safer for reopening this fall as the threat of a second wave of COVID-19 looms.

Education Minister Zach Churchill announced Friday that more teachers and other staff would be hired, and supplies purchased to eliminate the need for sharing.

The spending includes:

  • $29 million for more substitute teachers.
  • $8.7 million for more custodial staff.
  • $1.4 million to extend the hours of pre-primary teachers to allow time for cleaning.
  • $1.2 million for more lunch monitors.
  • $500,000 for school supplies including pencils, pens and erasers.

With the supply of qualified substitute teachers already strained, Churchill said the province would be waiving bachelor of education requirements and bringing in "other qualified people."

He said he didn't know exactly who those people would be, but he expected they would have expertise in the subject matter in whatever area they're brought in to teach.

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.

Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney said his organization has not signed off on the policy change and is not OK with it.

He said the teachers union usually negotiates each year with the province to allow some regions to hire outside the qualified teacher pool. Rural areas and the French school board have recently hired non-qualified teachers, according to Wozney. 

This year, Wozney said the province made the decision unilaterally to allow people without degrees in education to be allowed to work in all regions.

"On the one hand, I understand it's an emergency, we need to find ways to staff schools, but that's a grave concern," Wozney told reporters Friday.

He said his concerns are for the qualified substitute teachers, who he worries could be supplanted by unqualified hires, and for the quality of education.

The Education Department said school administrators have to make "every reasonable effort" to find qualified substitute teachers before hiring those with special permits.

Increased mask-wearing

Churchill also announced that the requirements to wear masks are expanding from the guidelines first released in the reopening plan last month.

Now, all students in Grade 4 and up will have to wear non-medical masks unless they are sitting at their desk and the desk is separated from others by at least two metres.

Churchill conceded that it will not be possible for desks to be separated by two metres at some schools if attendance is at 100 per cent.

But under a blended model, which is one of the province's contingency plans if the virus epidemiology changes, older students would be sent home and all students in schools would be spread out by two metres.

Schools will provide two free cloth masks to all students and staff at the start of the school year and disposable masks will be available in case personal masks are lost or forgotten.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said the change was based on updated recommendations from federal Public Health and new evidence that shows children ages 10 and above are more likely to transmit the virus than younger children. 

Strang said the change was not at all based on public concern around mask use in schools that emerged shortly after the original reopening plan was released last month.

"My guidance to government is not based on public concern, it's based on science and evidence, and clearly we have evolving evidence around the value of masks," Strang said at Friday's news conference. 

Masks will now be mandatory for students in Grade 4 and up, unless they're sitting at their desks and can physically distance. (CBC)

Churchill said ventilation systems are being assessed at each school to ensure they are functioning properly, and windows are being checked to make sure they open fully.

He said windows are the only ventilation system at some older schools. When asked about how practical that is in the winter, he said windows could remain open because "we have heating in all our schools."

Questions remain

Wozney said the change in mask usage was a "step in the right direction," but the update didn't satisfy all the concerns he's been hearing from his union members.

He said it "continues to baffle" that young children will have to wear masks in hallways and on buses but not in classrooms, and that physical distancing will not be made possible in all school settings. 

"There continues to be a real disconnect and incongruity in the Public Health advice that we're getting." 

Wozney said many teachers do not feel safe returning to school.

"We have a mass lack of confidence in the plan as it currently stands. We have time to make changes but ... we're running out of runway to get it right," said Wozney.

Churchill said he knows anxieties are running high, but he suggested some of that anxiety comes from people watching the news from the U.S. and other jurisdictions where the virus has taken a greater toll than it has in Nova Scotia.

Churchill said there's been ample communication about the reopening plan and that the risk in Nova Scotia remains low.

He said principals are being brought back to work early this year and they, along with other administrators, would be communicating more to their individual communities about the return to school, soon. Regional centres and the French school board will send out updates to families next week.

Information about sports programs and the EXCEL program is also due to be released soon, according to Churchill. 

What happens if COVID-19 is detected

There is no universal plan for what will happen if COVID-19 is detected in schools, and Strang said there will not be one. Cases will be dealt with as they arise, considering the epidemiology of the community, the surrounding areas and the source of infection.

Strang said that if cohorting — the bubbling of small groups — 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.

Cohorting is meant to keep contact to a minimum within schools. The strategy is being applied mostly to younger grades where students mostly stay with the same class group throughout the day.

Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, says his team is re-evaluating the symptom list for COVID-19 ahead of the start of school. (Communications Nova Scotia)

"There is no one-size-fits-all ... but communities will be made aware if there is a COVID case very quickly," said Churchill. 

He said families will also be told what measures are being taken by Public Health.

Strang said Public Health is anticipating an increased demand for testing in the fall, and his team is working with the health authority to make sure they're prepared. He said he's re-evaluating the COVID-19 symptom list to make sure it still captures the most important markers of the disease, without sending too many people in for testing.

Changes to inclusive education approach

Churchill acknowledge Friday that school closures earlier this year disproportionately impacted students with specialized needs, such as those with physical and cognitive disabilities. With that in mind, he said his department is taking a different approach to spending on inclusive education this year. 

Churchill's department has been spending millions each year for the past two years to hire more specialized teaching and support staff, and hiring is usually complete before September.

This year, he said about 85 new support staff — mostly teaching assistants, specialized teachers and guidance counselors — have been hired, but a second round of hires will 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.