Nova Scotia

Union leaders give failing grade to Nova Scotia's back-to-school plan

Leaders of unions representing school staff and faculty in Nova Scotia say the province's back-to-school plan is unsafe and reckless.

'This is the last place you want to be cutting corners in terms of safety,' says Danny Cavanagh

NSTU President Paul Wozney said he cannot endorse the province's back-to-school plan as it currently stands. (Brooklyn Currie/CBC)

Leaders of unions representing school staff and faculty in Nova Scotia say the province's back-to-school plan is unsafe and reckless.

Student will return to classrooms full-time in September and masks will be mandatory for students in grades 4-12. The province will spend an additional $40 million on staff, support and supplies.

Six union leaders held a press conference in Dartmouth, N.S., on Wednesday outlining their concerns, which include poor ventilation in schools, the inability to physically distance in classrooms, and a lack of guidance for school staff, teachers and parents.

Danny Cavanagh, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, which represents 70,000 members in more than 400 union locals, said schools are the largest, most interconnected workplaces in the province. He said that come September, 150,000 people across Nova Scotia will be returning to them.

"Given what's at stake, this is the last place you want to be cutting corners in terms of safety," said Cavanagh.

Leaders from six unions representing school staff and faculty in Nova Scotia are calling on the provincial government to amend its back-to-school plan. (Brooklyn Currie/CBC)

Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney said during his talks with the province, the original plan was to have reduced class sizes from grades P-9, while high school students would attend class on a rotating basis.

The NSTU supported that approach, but it was ultimately decided against by the province.

"We have no idea what the epidemiology or the research is that justifies the shift to 'everybody back with no distancing.' We've asked those questions, we've received no answers. It's simply not good enough," Wozney said.

Drew Fournier, who teaches grades 4 and 5 at Kingswood Elementary in Hammonds Plains, N.S., said he thinks the lack of physical distancing will cause a lot of fear and anxiety for students, teachers and parents.

"You see [physical distancing] in parks, you see it in malls, you see it at restaurants, everywhere," he said. "This distancing is not going to happen within a school classroom."

Because COVID-19 is spread through droplets in the air people emit while speaking, coughing or singing, good ventilation that brings in fresh air from outside plays an important role in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

A mock classroom was set up to demonstrate how close students will have to sit. In a 500 square-foot classroom, students will be seated less than 75 centimetres apart from each other. (Brooklyn Currie/CBC)

Nan McFadgen, president of CUPE Nova Scotia, which represents members from education centres across the province, said the issue of ventilation in schools is not new, but needs to be taken more seriously in the midst of a pandemic.

"Schools reopening requires more thought and planning than the glib response of the minister of education suggesting that we open windows," she said.

In Pictou County, where McFadgen is from, she said there's a school with windows that only partially open and an air handling unit that hasn't worked in three years. She said she'd be very surprised if the province was able to get it to work before September.

Teachers Crystal Isert and Drew Fournier said they still have questions about how to navigate lesson planning with so many changes to how classes will operate. (Brooklyn Currie/CBC)

With so many changes, some teachers are feeling left in the dark when it comes to planning their lessons for the fall.

"We haven't heard what will be in place to help us. The lack of communication is concerning," said Crystal Isert, who teaches Grade 6 at Leslie Thomas Junior High in Sackville.

While she is a bit more confident after mandatory masks were announced for her grade level, she still has major concerns about what will be permitted in classrooms.

"If you're not allowed to do collaborative group work anymore and no students are allowed to work together, which is fundamental in every classroom right now … if we have to just switch back to standing in front of the classroom and teaching, I need time to prepare," she said.

Province doubles down on plan

Premier Stephen McNeil said the government has worked with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union from the start to make sure students could return to school in September and he's proud of the collaboration.

He said they've been working closely with public health and following guidelines, and will continue to do so.

"I have all the confidence that the professionals standing in front of our kids will do all they can to make sure not only will they continue to provide them a top quality education, but they'll follow the health protocols to keep them safe," he said.