Nova Scotia's back-to-school plan raises concerns for at-risk students
HALIFAX -- With only a handful of active COVID-19 cases in the Maritimes, and the continued easing of restrictions, many residents have returned to some of the activities and life they enjoyed before the pandemic.
But for those living with a compromised immune system, it’s still a time of uncertainty and concern, as the threat of contracting the virus remains top of mind.
This week, the Nova Scotia government announced that all public school students will be back in the classroom full time in September. It was welcome news for some, but others have questions about what will happen to children who are at risk?
Van Bernard is among them. The 13-year-old boy lives with spinal muscular atrophy and, while he misses school and his friends, he was concerned when he heard the announcement.
“I was a little bit nervous about how everything would work,” says Bernard, who is going into Grade 8.
When Bernard attends school, he is assisted by an educational program assistant, or EPA. EPAs are hands-on and they work with students in close proximity, which makes it difficult to maintain physical distance.
Bernard’s mother, Julie Clegg, has questions for Nova Scotia’s education minister.
“What is the plan to get special-needs children back into the resource learning centre and what does that look like?” she asks.
Clegg hopes the people making those decisions understand the magnitude of the health risk her son would face while in school.
“If he gets a cold, he does not have the lung strength or capacity to cough,” she says. “His sputum settles in his lungs and it turns into bacterial pneumonia.”
Another Nova Scotian who is following the back-to-school plan closely is Jeremie Saunders. The 32-year-old lives with cystic fibrosis and hosts the Sickboy Podcast, which examines health issues.
Saunders says he, too, was concerned when he heard students would be headed back to school full time.
“This is likely really going to suck,” he says. “I can’t imagine being in Grade 12, going into my final year of high school, and being told all of your friends are going back, but you need to stay home.”
Saunders says he would be facing the loss of an entire academic year had the pandemic happened while he was in school -- a devastating situation for any student, but especially tough for a young child who is already living with serious health issues.
Saunders says any plan to bring students who are at-risk, immunocompromised, and have special needs back to school needs to be thorough and multi-layered.
“Academically, what kind of support does that look like? But also, from a mental health standpoint, what does that look like?” he wonders.
As things stand now, Clegg says she doubts whether her son will be heading back to school in September.
“There are so many unanswered questions, so many things that we, as parents, need answers to, before me and my husband can even think about sending Van back to school,” she says.
Bernard admits he will be upset if he can’t return to class with his friends in the fall, but he knows it’s a risk it might not be worth taking.
“At the same time, I’d understand why.”
The province has said plans for at-risk students and those with special needs will be rolled out soon.