Nova Scotia

N.S. parents' group tracks COVID-19 cases in schools, but Strang says it's not needed

The group on Facebook is collecting and reporting COVID-19 cases now that Public Health is no longer doing contact tracing in schools.

'We can’t equate safety with being COVID-free,' says chief medical health officer

Public school students in Nova Scotia returned to in-person learning on Monday. (Hadin Hassin/Radio-Canada)

A Nova Scotia parents' group with some 24,000 members on Facebook is collecting and publicizing COVID-19 cases connected to schools now that Public Health is no longer doing that. 

But it's a move that the province's chief medical officer of health says isn't needed.

"While I appreciate that people want to help and feel that the information is important, there really is no additional benefit in school settings to have that contact tracing," Dr. Robert Strang said during Wednesday's COVID-19 update. 

Strang said given how widespread Omicron is in the community, the advice to students, families and school staff is the same whether or not they're a close contact: get vaccinated when you can, stay home when you're sick, test when appropriate and follow public health rules. 

Group tracking school cases on spreadsheet

Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education has created a public online spreadsheet where people can anonymously self-report when someone in their immediate family or in their care tests positive for COVID-19.

The name of the school or the bus connected to the case is included on the exposure list, but not the specific classroom. As of Wednesday at 6 p.m. AT, there were 64 cases on the spreadsheet and most were in the Halifax area.

"This is a better than nothing scenario," Deborah McNamara, a spokesperson for the group, told CBC Radio's Maritime Noon on Wednesday.

"The perfect scenario is actually actively contact tracing within schools. We don't have the capability of doing that, and we'd rather have something over nothing." 

McNamara, who has a son in Grade 11, said she hears from many parents worried that the spread of the coronavirus is no longer being managed in schools.

"We're hearing the frustration and we're hearing the worry ... from parents saying, 'Thank you for doing something. We need something.' And I think that says a lot," she said.

Listen to Deborah McNamara's full interview with CBC Radio's Maritime Noon:

Having information about cases in schools helps parents and students make informed decisions, McNamara said. 

"They may increase testing among their family members. They may keep their kids home from school. They may limit their contacts in other ways by, say, driving them instead of putting them on a bus," she said. 

But Strang said Wednesday that relying on an official close contact notification can give people a false sense of security.

"We can't equate safety with being COVID-free," he said. "In school, or anywhere in our province, COVID is everywhere so of course it will be in our schools."

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, fields a question at a COVID-19 briefing in Halifax on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Nova Scotia is the first Atlantic province to reopen classrooms this year.

Now that Public Health has changed its contact tracing strategy, families are expected to report school absences related to COVID-19 the same way they would report any other absence.

"If a parent chooses to share their COVID-19 status of their child they can, but the school administration won't share the student's COVID-19 status broadly and notify anyone of the exposure," a spokesperson for the province said. 

As was already the case before COVID-19, school administrators will notify Public Health if absenteeism at a school reaches 10 per cent, at which point Public Health would investigate further.

School staff can share their COVID-19 status if they want to.

8% of public school students not in class

Premier Tim Houston said the first week of in-person classes has been "more smooth than not smooth."

While attendance in public schools is typically about 88 to 90 per cent, he said this week it's been 80 to 88 per cent. That means about eight per cent of families have kept their kids home, the premier said.

Nell Turner, a Grade 11 student at Dartmouth High School, said being back in the classroom this week has been stressful but that people are following the rules.

Listen to Nell Turner's interview with CBC Radio's Mainstreet:

"I didn't feel unsafe," she told CBC Radio's Mainstreet. "I felt that everyone was doing the best things they could do. Everyone was wearing their masks properly."

Still, she said she wishes Public Health spent more time consulting with students before they made the decision to resume in-person classes this week. 

"Exams alone are hard enough, just the stress of them, but trying not to get COVID before them is even more stressful sometimes," she said. 

More rapid tests in schools

The province also said teachers, students and daycares will have more access to rapid test kits starting next week. Strang said there will be enough tests for teachers and students to use up to two rapid tests a week.

These can be used by people who have symptoms, but also by those who aren't symptomatic, given concerns about potential ongoing exposure at schools, Strang said.

He said he understands the lack of contact tracing in schools is a "significant psychological shift" that's causing worry for many teachers and parents.

But Strang also expressed concern over what he described as "unnecessary fear and anxiety."

"I want to stress how important it is for all of us to support our children and youth, as well as teachers, by creating a sense of reassurance and calm in our language and actions about returning to school," he said.

With files from CBC Radio's Maritime Noon and Mainstreet Halifax