Nova Scotia

Officials attempt to reassure N.S. parents about back-to-school plan

The chief of pediatrics at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax says he understands why some parents have concerns as their children prepare to return to class, but Dr. Andrew Lynk says the public should also have confidence in the province’s back-to-school plan.

Teachers union asking province to use federal cash to rent more classroom spaces

Dr. Andrew Lynk, chief of pediatrics at the IWK Centre in Halifax, says Nova Scotia's back-to-school plan is informed by low rates of COVID-19, while allowing for flexibility to quickly respond should cases suddenly spike. (novascotia.ca)

The chief of pediatrics at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax says he understands why some parents have concerns as their children prepare to return to class, but Dr. Andrew Lynk says the public should also have confidence in the province's back-to-school plan.

Lynk is part of the provincial pediatric advisory group, which includes experts on infectious diseases and developmental disabilities. The group formed on its own this year and volunteered to help the provincial government with the plan, which it ultimately endorsed.

While plans might be different in other provinces, Lynk said Nova Scotia's approach is informed by low rates of COVID-19, while allowing for flexibility to quickly respond should cases suddenly spike. He said his group and public health officials are surveying information about the pandemic and what's happening elsewhere on a weekly basis, which helps inform decisions.

"I think people have to know that there's a lot of very good people who have a lot of expertise in this area who are keeping their eye on the ball with this," he said.

The back-to-school plan was once again front and centre Thursday during a news conference by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education.

Again, three key issues were highlighted: the inability to properly physically distance in schools, parents' inability to get answers to certain questions and the lack of a defined plan for what would be required for learning plans to change should COVID-19 be detected in schools.

The province's chief medical officer of health has said the latter isn't possible because each situation is different, which means there cannot be a template.

'Clarity and communication' 

But union president Paul Wozney said parents in Nova Scotia need more information so they can know when and how to prepare should their kids no longer be able to attend school each day. He noted that officials in Newfoundland and Labrador have provided a more defined explanation of what would change.

"Families need this kind of clarity and communication so they can be ready to pivot with advanced notice," said Wozney.

Stacey Rudderham, co-chair of Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, said the lack of information has created a lack of trust for some people when it comes to the government's plan.

"It feels like, to us, they're flying by the seat of their pants, that they don't have these things all worked out," she said.

Without evidence, Rudderham questioned whether the support the plan received from Lynk and other health-care professionals was politically motivated. Wozney, meanwhile, questioned the understanding Lynk and his colleagues, some of whom are married to teachers or have school-age children, have for how classrooms operate.

Paul Wozney is the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. (CBC)

In an effort to address space concerns, Wozney called on the government to use some of the $48 million it's getting from Ottawa to rent additional sites for students and staff.

"We know that landlords, particularly of commercial and multi-use space, are hurting right now because they can't rent those spaces or they have tenants who can't cover their rent," he said.

"Here's a golden opportunity for that money from Ottawa to pay bills of hurting landlords and business people to use those spaces."

That's unlikely to happen.

Churchill wants kids in 'their schools'

Education Minister Zach Churchill said the majority of the money will go to enhanced cleaning efforts at schools and on buses. He said it's important to try to keep students in their schools as much as possible.

"That's where they have access to food, that's where they have access to technology, that's where they have access to mental health and speech pathologists and teaching specialists and that's where they're going to find their friends," he said.

The minister said he knows there is still a lot of uncertainty and outstanding questions. Although some can't be answered, he said principals are now contacting parents to address questions about their children's specific schools and his department is working on a document that will go to parents next week attempting to answer general, frequently-asked questions.

Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill said the majority of the money the province gets from Ottawa for reopening schools will go toward enhanced cleaning efforts at schools and on buses. (CBC)

Lynk said clear, consistent communication from public health officials and the Education Department will go a long way in trying to reassure people.

And while he and his colleagues continue to closely monitor COVID-19 and prepare for its potential effects on the school year, that's not what's worrying him most right now.

"As a pediatrician who has infectious disease and communicable disease training and has been at this game for 30 years, with everything I know right now I'm more concerned about influenza for kids," he said.

He's encouraging parents to get their kids the flu shot this year.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

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