Nova Scotia

How did Nova Scotia's first week of school go? It's a matter of opinion

The head of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union is giving Nova Scotia's return to school a failing grade, but the education minister says the feedback he's received "has been exceptionally positive."

NSTU gives province a failing grade, but education minister says feedback 'exceptionally positive'

The head of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union is critical of how the province has handled back-to-school. (Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

Students' first week back to class in Nova Scotia during COVID-19 was marked by subpar ventilation systems and overworked staff, according to the head of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

Paul Wozney, who raised alarm bells about school safety in the days leading up to Sept. 8, said many of those fears came true.  

"In the first day of school, we found a classroom that had no windows where a furnace filter had been taped to a box fan you can buy at any department store as some kind of makeshift air purifier," he told CBC's Information Morning on Wednesday. 

But Education Minister Zach Churchill said he's not aware of any ventilation concerns in schools, adding that the feedback he's been getting "has been exceptionally positive."

Churchill, who has called Wozney's comments hyperbole in the past, painted a very different picture of students' return to the classroom.

"This has been one of the smoothest school openings that we've experienced," Churchill said.

Teachers having to stay late, says NSTU

Wozney said many school buses have been late to pick up students, which means teachers have to wait up to two and a half hours so kids aren't left alone. 

"At a time where we're worried about fatigue and general health, hundreds of teachers are being expected to spend, you know, hours more per day in closed spaces at high-risk contact with students," he said.

The bus delays are due to several drivers in the Halifax region who retired ahead of the school year, according to Churchill. The department has now hired 10 drivers and plans to hire another 20, he said.

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

Many classrooms in the province aren't big enough to have desks two metres apart so students are forced to wear masks for long periods of time, said Wozney.

Teachers are doing their best to educate students about the importance of wearing masks, but Wozney said he can't blame kids for needing a break.

"Because the temperatures are so hot, you know, kids are understandably kind of taking a break at various points through the day," he said.

We're just over a week into the new school year. We check in with Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney, and Education Minister Zach Churchill about how it is going. 15:40

Wozney also raised concerns about families not being able to get through to 811 when they develop symptoms.

Wozney has been criticized by Premier Stephen McNeil for using rhetoric that's not helpful or accurate when it comes to the province's back-to-school plan.

Wozney said teachers don't want to raise these concerns publicly, but they have to because the government isn't listening.

"All of the promises made in this plan are paper tigers, and they're not actually things that keep kids safe," he said. "And if we don't tell the truth right now, if it comes out that teachers were complicit in suppressing the reality of classrooms, you know, no one's ever going to trust a teacher again."

N.S. 'in a very enviable position'

Churchill said in a perfect world all students would be able to physically distance while at school, but that's not possible. 

"The fact is, we'd have to take half of our kids out and send them home and have them learning from home if we did want to do that," Churchill said. "So I think we're in a very enviable position here where we can get all of our students back."

Education Minister Zach Churchill says Nova Scotia is one of the only provinces to provide student and staff with personal protective equipment in schools. (Canadian Press)

Churchill said teachers are encouraged to take kids outside as much as possible, and focus on "education and soliciting co-operation" when it comes to mask wearing, rather than resort to disciplining them.

In addition to hiring more bus drivers, Churchill said there are plans to hire more inclusive education supports "as we get a better sense of what the needs of students are."

"Everyone's still learning about this virus," Churchill said. "The science does change. The information does change on it and we need to adapt with that information as it comes in."

With files from CBC's Information Morning

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