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Paul Wozney: Time is now to reduce class sizes and keep schools safe

“28 desks. About 75 cm between each” Photo Twitter

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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One Comment

  1. On the subject of ventilation and air quality…HRCE has reached out to me to discuss this a few months ago and for a fraction of what they paid for the new computers the classrooms in Nova Scotia would have world leading technology in most classrooms for years to come. If they still have money in their budget they could probably have both computers in case of closure and clean air classrooms for their return to classrooms.

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