Union leaders say N.S. back-to-school plan does not meet safety standards, want more detail
DARTMOUTH, N.S. -- Leaders from six different unions across Nova Scotia gathered Wednesday in Dartmouth to voice their concerns about the province's back-to-school plan.
"The back-to-school plan as it currently stands does not meet basic health guidelines in terms of social distancing and proper ventilation," said Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.
"This is the only time that I've heard Dr. Strang, the premier and the minister tell Nova Scotians that we should be OK with COVID-19 outbreaks in our province. Everything we have been told for months says it is our job to get transmission rates down to zero and keep them there."
Students are scheduled to return to the classroom on Sept. 8, but unions say the plan doesn't meet safety standards.
"To ensure schools are safe, class sizes need to shrink so all students can be provided with two metres of physical distancing, all students who are able to, should be required to wear a mask and everyone working in a school should be able to breathe in safe, clean air," said Wozney.
Last week, Education Minister Zach Churchill said all students in Grades 4 to 12 will be required to wear a mask in school, unless they are able to physically distance at their desk.
Churchill said the province is spending $40 million to hire more staff and buy supplies for the upcoming school year and that every school will have its windows and ventilation system checked to ensure they are working.
"A well-thought-out plan would contain a series of controls, such as Plexiglas barriers, arranging the flow of work, and people, to minimize contact and personal protective equipment. Nowhere is there evidence of such planning," said Nan McFadgen, president of CUPE Nova Scotia. "We have witnessed what a lack of planning has done in the long-term-care system. We do not want a repeat of this in our education system."
With less than three weeks to go before the first day of school, unions say there are many unanswered questions.
"What happens if a student gets sick? What happens if a worker gets sick? What are the processes and protocols that protect workers and their families if there is an outbreak in a school where they work?" said NSGEU President Jason MacLean.
"We're a few weeks away from schools opening and staff still don't have a full understanding of what their roles and responsibilities are going to be, what is expected of them, how they're going to be working with individuals?" added Jacqueline Swaine of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2.
The Nova Scotia Nurses Union wants to see infection-control specialists go into schools and develop a plan.
"We worked so hard to keep COVID out of our hospitals and if we get a COVID case at the IWK, where we have very vulnerable children there, some having cancer, receiving treatment, and, we saw how it can go through a building. So, I'm very concerned that the same caution isn't happening in the education system that happened in health care," said Nova Scotia Nurses Union President Janet Hazelton.
Teachers say the lack of information is making it difficult to prepare for the school year.
"We don't know what the approach is supposed to be," said Grade 4/5 teacher Drew Fournier. "In the elementary level, everything is group-based, everything is learning, everything is hands-on, everything is tactile and we have received no direction about how that's supposed to look."
"If you're not allowed to do collaborative group work anymore and no students are allowed to work together, which is fundamental in every classroom right now, especially in a P-to-8 or P-to-9, if we're not allowed and it's switched back to just standing in front of a classroom and teaching, I need time to prepare," added Crystal Isert, a Grade 6 teacher.
Education Minister Zach Churchill says overall health and safety measures, like sanitation protocols, mask protocols and classroom spacing, are for every school.
However, he says a lot of the operational details, with how the back-to-school plan will work school-to-school will be communicated once principals are back in schools next week and communicated to their staff.
"What might look different from school-to-school is how a teacher is able to space out desks in their classroom, and they might need to get some advice from their principals on how to do that, how much time is spent outside, how recess is staggered. These sorts of things in terms of implementation may be different from school to school," said Churchill.