'This year's experience will be different': Most N.S. students will need to wear a mask in school
HALIFAX -- The Nova Scotia government has released more details about its back-to-school plan, including an update on mandatory masks in schools.
Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang provided an update during a news conference on Friday.
The province first released details about its back-to-school plan last month, when it was announced that students would be returning to the classroom full time on Sept. 8, with protocols in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
However, the province’s plan was met with criticism by many teachers and parents, who felt it lacked important details. Some also questioned why only high school students were required to wear masks in hallways and common areas, and why masks weren’t mandatory for students in classrooms.
Churchill and Strang acknowledged Friday that people still have a lot of questions and anxiety over the government’s plan.
“There’s no doubt that this year’s experience will be different than past years and everyone is understandably anxious about the unknown that’s coming for the fall and of course we all understand that,” said Churchill.
“We are all sensitive to those anxieties and as new information is known we will adapt the plan that we have in place.”
“There is a lot of uncertainty and we did have to have a very strong response to the first wave, so if you’re feeling anxious, feeling fearful, the first thing is to remind yourself that that’s OK and that’s normal,” said Strang.
“However, COVID-19 is here for a long time and we need to learn to live our life balancing COVID safety while allowing, as much as possible, aspects of our daily life, including learning environments, to continue.”
MANDATORY MASKS AND OTHER MEASURES
The back-to-school plan has been updated to mandate non-medical masks for students in Grades 4 to 12 while in school.
All students in those grades will be required to wear a mask inside schools, except when they are seated at their desks, and only then if their desks are spaced two metres apart and facing the same direction. If students can’t sit two metres apart, they must wear a mask while at their desks.
“This change is in line with new federal recommendations around mask-wearing and what we know about their effectiveness to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said Churchill. “These changes to mask-wearing will help to mitigate risk when students, teachers and staff cannot distance.”
Strang said the advice and evidence related to masks has changed, even since the province released the back-to-school plan a few weeks ago, so the plan has been amended based on new guidelines from public health officials in Canada.
“They now recommend masks for children ages 10 and up because it’s that age group that may be as likely as adults to transmit the virus,” explained Strang. “Children under the age of 10 are much less likely to transmit COVID-19.”
Masks must be worn in hallways and other common areas when physical distancing isn’t possible.
“We know that social distancing is not always physically possible, but schools have been asked to be creative and innovative to maximize opportunities for spacing,” said Churchill. “Everyone will be doing their best to adapt the space they have to create distance in the classrooms. Masks are another layer of prevention, especially when full distancing cannot be achieved.”
Masks and hand sanitizer are starting to arrive at schools. The government says it is distributing 310,000 non-medical masks to public schools across the province for students, teachers and staff.
All students and staff will receive two free cloth masks. Disposable masks will also be available if a student forgets or loses their mask while at school.
Strang is encouraging parents and caregivers to help children get comfortable with wearing a mask, and learn how to put them on and take them off safely, before school starts.
He also acknowledged that some people have valid medical reasons for not wearing a mask and said those reasons should be respected.
The province also announced that the ventilation system will be checked and maintained at each school to ensure the equipment is in good condition and operating properly.
Principals are expected to reach out to families with specific information about their school closer to September.
Before-and-after-school programs, such as EXCEL, will be offered in accordance with public health guidelines. Programs will be communicating with families soon.
As for sports, the province says a schedule and protocols that follow public health guidelines are in the final stage of development with Sports Nova Scotia. The plan will be sent to schools by the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation.
WHAT IF THERE’S A COVID-19 CASE IN SCHOOL?
If a COVID-19 case is identified in a school, Strang said public health officials will work quickly to identify and test anyone who may have come in close contact with that person. Public health will assess who is considered a close contact of the confirmed case.
Schools, with the support of public health, will notify families as soon as they become aware of a COVID-19 case at their child’s school, as well as what measures will need to be taken.
Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will be required to self-isolate at home for 14 days. People who are identified as close contacts will also be required to self-isolate for 14 days.
“Any additional steps will be guided by public health with the school based on the specific circumstances around that case,” said Strang.
As to how many cases of COVID-19 would prompt the closure of a school, Strang said there is no specific number, and those decisions will be made based on an assessment of what’s happening in the school as well as the local community.
He also explained the current back-to-school plan is based on the current COVID-19 situation in Nova Scotia. He said the plan is flexible and will adapt if and when the local epidemiology changes.
RESPONSE FROM UNION AND OPPOSITION
The President of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union says the governments plan still lacks details.
"What contiunes to baffle and confuse parents and teachers is kids below 10 are going to be required to mask in common areas and on buses so you know, if they're a risk to spread on the bus, if they're a risk to spread in the hallway, how are they not a risk to spread in the classroom?" asks Paul Wozney.
"It's very clear there's a disconnect between the expertise of public health and you know, whether or not it can happen in the manner its intended, given the ways that our schools function in real time and real ways in 2020."
With just over three weeks until the first day of school, opposition MLA's are calling on the government to hold regular updates to try and alleviate the anxiety that many parents are feeling.
"While I do think it is important that school restarts, this is the biggest reopening that we have had since March. Much bigger than the reopeing of the commercial sector here in Nova Scotia," asks NDP education spokesperson Claudia Chender.
"This is crunch time now and we need to have greater clarity, greater direction and greater leadership, better leadership from the government on this file," adds PC education critic Tim Halman.
NOVA SCOTIA TO SPEND $40 MILLION TO REOPEN SCHOOLS
Churchill also announced that the province will be spending an additional $40 million to support students and staff as they return to school next month.
The investment includes the following:
- $29 million for more substitute teachers
- $8.7 to hire more custodial staff to support enhanced cleaning
- $1.4 million to extend the work day of early childhood educators in pre-primary, allowing for enhanced cleaning
- $1.2 million to hire more lunch monitors
- $500,000 for regular school supplies, such as pencils, pens and erasers
“We’re buying more so that students do not have to share those items,” explained Churchill.
Nova Scotia schools have remained closed since March break in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Students continued their education at home during the pandemic, either online or with workbooks. The school year ended for students on June 5.