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Keeping schools open, safe top of priority list, says Cape Breton MLA

Sydney-Whitney Pier MLA Derek Mombourquette takes over as Nova Scotia's minister of education and early childhood development.
Sydney-Whitney Pier MLA Derek Mombourquette takes over as Nova Scotia's minister of education and early childhood development.

SYDNEY – As Derek Mombourquette adjusts to his new role as education and early childhood development minister, the 40-year-old can almost guarantee one certainty: there will be no disruptions to next week’s March break.

And that suits the Sydney-Whitney Pier MLA just fine.

“We’re on the home stretch, and March break is staying in place,” said Mombourquette, whom Premier Iain Rankin selected on Feb. 23 to take over the portfolio.

Mombourquette succeeds Zach Churchill, who helmed the post from mid-2017 under the leadership of former premier Stephen McNeil.

Along with spearheading the Educational Reform Act in 2018, Churchill dealt with a bulk pandemic-related issues from financial funding to support students to ensuring enough personal protective equipment was on hand for teachers and support staff.

Following his first caucus meeting with Rankin, the former energy and mines/lands and forestry minister feels it’s too soon to forecast how he’ll fare in the shadow of Churchill’s accomplishments.

At this stage, Mombourquette says his primary goal is to ensure schools remain operational amid the fluctuations of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re very lucky that we’re one of the very few jurisdictions in North America where our kids have been in school since September,” Mombourquette said. “We had to shut down early on, as most of the world did. It was immediate, sudden and we had to adjust to student learning at home. Everybody stepped up to support our kids with the hopes of getting back into school.

“Our main priority right now is ensuring that our schools are open and that our students and staff are safe.”

Mombourquette says he has had “a front-row seat to the work that educators and support staff put in on a daily basis,” though away from his political activity, his Nova Scotia Legislature online biography points to past notable accomplishments centred around post-secondary education, such as serving as co-ordinator of entrepreneurship support initiatives for Cape Breton University and the Nova Scotia Community College, as well as project co-ordinator in several industries within the private sector, including post-secondary education.

Nonetheless, NSTU president Paul Wozney says he hopes having a fresh face in the portfolio will help improve communication between the union and an individual working under the Rankin government.

Wozney said he met briefly with Mombourquette and feels there’s a great “opportunity to shift the dynamic of how teachers and government work together.

“He identifies, like we do, it’s in the best interest of students, families and school staff that the union and government find ways to collaborate on changes that make a difference.”

Mombourquette also put health and safety within the province’s schools on his list of priorities. Near the end of Churchill’s tenure, a group called Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education expressed concern that the province wasn’t providing enough available data on air quality monitoring in public schools.

For ventilation checks, Mombourquette said, “We’re doing constant checks; we’ve done two checks so far within our schools qll across the province, and we’ll do a third one later this year. But this is all a directive from Public Health, and we’ve done it and will continue to do it.”

Beyond that, Mombourquette said as part of his mandate he will also focus on having operational and budget plans in place for schools once the pandemic passes.

“We’re also looking beyond, to the back end of COVID,” he said. “We’ve received a lot of feedback from parents and students. I’ve had some great conversations with the (Nova Scotia Teachers) Union president and other stakeholders to determine what is the environment going to look like post-COVID.”

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