KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – This is a scary time for Nova Scotians. There’s no other way to put it.
For months, we’ve lived in the safety of the Atlantic bubble while COVID-19 has ravaged the world around us. Our kids went back to school, played sports and saw their friends. People went out to dinner, saw movies and hosted socially distanced parties. Grandparents were once again reunited with their children and grandchildren. And throughout it all, very few got sick with coronavirus unless they travelled outside the region. We were literally the envy of the world.
But this all came crashing down in November. COVID-19 is no longer something we observe on our smart phones, TVs and tablets. It’s here in our province. It’s in our restaurants, bars and gyms. It’s on our university campuses and it’s in our public schools.
This was not unexpected; we were told for months to brace ourselves for a second wave. But what has come as a shock to students, teachers, school staff and their families is that the promised safety measures that were supposed to allow our schools to operate safely and sustainably during the second wave of this pandemic have not been delivered as promised.
While this week the province has shut down bars and restaurants across HRM, limited gathering sizes to five people, cancelled all recreational sports and reduced the capacity of stores to 25 per cent, not a single additional or new measure has been taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our schools.
Today, just like they have done every day for the past three months, almost 150,000 Nova Scotian children and adults (up to 35 at a time) crowd into small poorly ventilated classrooms where masks are not universally required, which also lack proper handwashing stations. Nowhere else is this tolerated. If you hosted a gathering like this in your home, you’d be fined.
Back in July, when the province released its back to school plan the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development assured parents they shouldn’t worry about the unhealthy buildings that house our schools. In the event of community spread, he said he would take urgent steps to keep schools safe by reducing class sizes so students could have proper physical distancing. He also promised that at-risk teachers and students with chronic conditions would be accommodated and protected.
But this hasn’t happened even though the federal government gave Nova Scotia $48 million dollars to prepare schools for a second wave.
Instead of being put towards improving ventilation systems or leasing larger spaces for students, half of this funding remains unspent. Of the rest, $5.5 million was used to re-open school gyms for evening sport leagues (in HRM they have since been cancelled). Another $22 million was spent on computers to support remote learning in the event of more lock downs.
The purchase of this needed technology is not unwelcomed by the NSTU. It’s only prudent for the province to prepare for worst case scenarios. But to draw a comparison, the sole priority can’t be purchasing life rafts for some in the event of a disaster. If the vessel that is our public education system is to withstand the enormous storm in its path, a significant amount of investment needs to be targeted to make certain the ship is seaworthy. Unfortunately, the proactive measures required to keep the system afloat as it hits the second wave have not been taken.
We all want schools to remain open. Teachers, more than anyone, understand the critical importance that school plays in the physical, intellectual and emotional well-being of children. They’ve literally dedicated their lives to helping young people achieve their best.
But for students to succeed they need to learn in an environment where they feel safe. They are subject to the same anxiety and pressure we are all experiencing right now.
Students and families notice that their basketball games and dance rehearsals have all been cancelled, yet nothing has changed in their classrooms or schools. They have the same questions and concerns we all do, and these need to be addressed by investing the resources we have on hand to make sure schools can remain open safely.
While Government’s lack of action has been deeply troubling, the NSTU remains committed to working with them to keep our schools open safely so the education of our youth is not compromised during this crisis. Now that the pandemic has returned to our province with a vengeance, the government must show resolve to keep COVID-19 out of classrooms. We don’t have any more time to waste.
Paul Wozney is the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union
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