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“School needs to be safe, this cannot be negotiable” – Unions respond to province’s back to school plan

NSTU president Paul Wozney. Photo Twitter/NSGEU

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Workers are worried about going back to schools that don’t offer sufficient protection against the COVID-19 virus, union leaders told reporters at a press conference this morning. 

“The first day of school traditionally has a feeling of excitement but this year, undeniably, there is a sense of fear,” said Jason MacLean, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU). 

The press conference served as a timely reminder that not just teachers, but also nurses, bus drivers, education assistants, cafeteria workers, janitors, administrative staff, any and all workers associated with schools are worried and feel out of the loop.

The union leaders are demanding that physical distancing and the wearing of masks be strictly enforced. In those cases where distancing is not possible they want to see alternative solutions, be they rotating shifts of students, additional locations, or whatever it will take.  

The lack of a detailed plan is concerning, said Nan McFadgen, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Nova Scotia.  

“What is the minimum standard for cleaning busses, common areas and classrooms? What types of cleaning products will be used? What if a child is symptomatic on the bus? What is the procedure for recording and dealing with such an incident,” McFadgen asked, noting that there’s no such thing as a bubble of any kind for bus drivers.

“Schools reopening requires more thought and planning than the glib response of the Minister of Education suggesting that we just open windows. It is time the government recognized that there is more to education than just our teachers and our students,” McFadgen said.

“The back to school plan, as it currently stands, does not meet basic health guidelines in terms of social distancing and proper ventilation. Opening the window in a crowded classroom where students are placed as little as 30 inches apart for several hours at a time does not meet the standard that every Nova Scotian deserves during this pandemic,” aid Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU). 

“To ensure schools are safe, class sizes need to shrink so all students can be provided with two meters 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 safe, clean air, regardless of what the weather’s like outside,” Wozney said.

“As a father myself, I shouldn’t have to guess what the protocol is in the event of a positive test at one of my children’s schools. I shouldn’t have to guess how many cases are required before my child’s school moves to remote learning. I shouldn’t have dozens of questions spinning through my mind,” said Wozney, who also raised the issue of the many teachers, students and staff who are coping with underlying health conditions. 

“I can’t think of any other workplace where health officials are openly predicting outbreaks of COVID-19 over the coming months, but that’s what parents are being told to expect in their children’s schools. I cannot accept that teachers and students, school staff and their families are being forced to accept more dangerous conditions than everyone else in this province. School needs to be safe. This cannot be negotiable,” Wozney said.

In the Q and A part of the press conference Wozney gave short shrift to many of the arguments made by education  minister Zach Churchill at last week’s government briefing.

While Churchill talked repeatedly about class sizes being successfully capped, Wozney countered that many classrooms will not allow for safe social distancing regardless. Similarly, while Churchill announced new efforts to provide proper ventilation in classroom environments, Wozney wondered what could realistically be accomplished in such a short time.   

McFadgen concurred.

“I know of a school in Pictou County that has an air handling unit that has not functioned for three years. If you tell me that they’re going to make it work in the next two weeks. I’ll be very surprised. The alternative that the minister pointed out was that we could open windows. Well, the windows for the most part  are not safe to open, with the exception of a few that can be open three inches,” the CUPE president said. 

The press conference was hosted by the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour. Jackie Swaine, vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2, and Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses Union (NSNU) also spoke.

The unions are calling on parents to speak with their MLAs and demand safe conditions for their children, for workers and, since we are dealing with a virus here, ultimately all Nova Scotians. See also Act For Education.

See also: “We come here to work, we don’t come here to die” – COVID-19 and migrant workers in Nova Scotia

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