GUYSBOROUGH – “It’s time to start living more with COVID,” Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, said at a news conference announcing the back-to-school plan on Monday, August 23.
Two weeks before students and staff return to classrooms on Sept. 7, they learned that school will be a return to more familiar routine. While in the first week of school masks will be required inside a school building or bus, when the province enters Phase 5 of its reopening plan, scheduled for Sept. 15, masks will become optional.
Entry into Phase 5 is dependent on the rate of vaccination within the province; 75 per cent of the population must be fully vaccinated (have two doses of vaccine) before Phase 5 protocols can be implemented.
“Our schools are as safe as our communities and thanks to safe and effective vaccines, and Nova Scotians rolling up their sleeves, our schools have an additional layer of protection this year that will allow students to have a much more normal year,” said Strang adding, “We continue to have core public health measures in place to protect everyone in our schools, including wearing masks, frequent hand washing, staying home if you’re sick and sanitizing high-touch surfaces.”
Although Nova Scotia has navigated the pandemic well, concerns and reluctance to reduce public health restrictions may remain for some, especially for parents of children who are not eligible for vaccination; those under 12 years of age.
The Journal asked Strang, during the news conference, what options were available for parents and guardians who don’t want to send their children to school when masks are no longer mandatory in Phase 5. Strang replied that in such cases, the parents would have to consult with the principal and school administration, “and as appropriate, virtual learning or take-home learning arrangements can be made with that student.”
Since movement into Phase 5 has been framed as contingent upon a 75 per cent rate of full vaccination within the province, The Journal asked Strang if case numbers, which have been creeping up this past week, would affect the decision to move into Phase 5, which includes the removal of the mandatory masking requirement in schools.
Strang answered, “No, I’ve always said the decisions are based on the epidemiology not on a case number. It is always the trend that we are seeing, and the average number of cases that we are seeing over time, the context of the cases. Right now, we’re still very comfortable with what we’re seeing. There’s no sign of community spread; it’s travel or close contact, and the number of contacts per case. So, there are a number of things that we look at some of them number driven, some of them contextual … it’s more than just a single number that would drive any sort of decision around epidemiology.”
In a news release issued shortly after the back-to-school announcement, the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union (NSTU) stated it was “pleased that a back-to-school plan has been released, which families, teachers and students have been anxiously anticipating for weeks.”
NSTU President Paul Wozney said, “Premier Designate Houston said during his first press conference following the election that releasing the back-to-school plan was his top priority and he’s certainly fulfilled that commitment … I’ve already had one discussion with Mr. Houston since the election and I’m very optimistic about his proactive approach to engaging with Nova Scotia’s teachers and education specialists.”
The Strait Regional Centre for Education’s Regional Executive Director of Education, Paul Landry, sent an email to the school community after the announcement stating, “I am excited to welcome you all back into our buildings for the start of another year. This school year, our educational routine will look more familiar, with a full return to music, band, field trips, and clubs. All school sports will resume. Gyms will be open to community groups in the evenings and on weekends. Students and staff will once again be able to use cafeterias and participate in food programs as they have in previous years. Parents and guardians who follow public health measures will be allowed to visit schools, including on the first day of school for our youngest learners.”
As of Sept. 7 students, families and staff can expect the following when they return to school:
full in-class learning with the associated academic, social and emotional supports
continued use of outdoor learning, small-group instruction, and enhanced use of technology
full resumption of music classes, band, sports, use of cafeterias, lockers and cubbies, extra-curricular activities and community use of gyms, following core public health measures
ongoing inspections and maintenance of school ventilation systems
school counsellors, SchoolsPlus staff, and others will continue to provide timely and appropriate mental health supports to students
schools will create supportive environments for those who choose to wear a mask once the province enters Phase 5
non-essential visitors will be permitted (following all safety protocols), although virtual meetings and visits are still encouraged
parents and guardians of pre-primary and Primary students will be able to visit schools on their child’s first day