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What you need to know about COVID-19: August 11, 2020
Sarah Arsenault says it’s time for the province’s Education Department to share its lesson plans.
“It’s been silent and very discouraging,” Arsenault, who lives in west-end Halifax with her husband Shane and three elementary school children, said of the department’s apparent plan to reopen the province’s schools in September.
“Leaving it (plan) a month before school starts is just unfair for parents. We are absolutely in limbo.”
Arsenault said most other provinces have already released a back-to-school plan but “Nova Scotia is unique in its lack of transparency and communication to parents.”
Arsenault took a voluntary leave from her job as a flight attendant with WestJet during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her full-time gig became caring for and helping to teach Aria, 10, Eli, 9, and Bea, 7, one of whom is dyslexic, while her husband continued working full-time from a different part of the home.
Presented a letter from concerned parents addressed to Premier Stephen McNeil this week about the province’s education needs, Arsenault readily joined the dozens of signees.
“We are frustrated by your government’s failure to put children and their right to education squarely at the centre of Nova Scotia's pandemic response,” the letter reads. “Education is a human right and it is essential for the physical and psycho-social health of our children.”
The delay in releasing a school reopening plan is causing families undue stress, the letter states, “including critical decisions about whether people can return to work or will be able to continue to work come September.”
Arsenault said she’s already passed up an opportunity to go back to work in June.
Decline back-to-work opportunity
“I had to decline because there were no daycares open for essential service workers, there were no day camps, there was just no one to help out,” she said.
An Education Department spokeswoman said Monday that the back-to-school plan will be announced by the end of July, partially based on the feedback from more than 28,000 parents and students as well as feedback from teachers and advice and direction from Public Health and IWK.
"Our goal is to get students in the classroom in September," Violet MacLeod said in an email. "However, we are also preparing for different learning scenarios, which will be announced in the near future."
The scenarios reportedly are three options -- a full return to class, alternating days of schools for students or a return to online, remote learning.
The letter from concerned parents points out that the economy cannot recover when children are not in school because parents with jobs cannot do them if their children do not go to school.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions and that is why we have been pushing so hard since late June, saying we need to get something up for parents and teachers and students, so everybody can see it coming and get ready, and, of course, it looks like the province has doubled down on ‘we’ll tell you when we’re ready to tell you’ and everything will be fine.”
Paul Wozney, NSTU president
The impact of this is being borne disproportionately by women, the letter says, referring to labour market data from March through June that shows women lost their jobs at much higher numbers, but did not return to work when the reopening began at the same rates as men — because child care remains a gendered activity still performed predominantly by women.
“It’s primarily moms that are taking on the multi-tasking roles in the house,” Arsenault said. “In a lot of working homes in Nova Scotia, men are still the highest earners and a lot of women have had to leave their jobs and put their careers on the back-burner.”
Parents are not alone in losing patience while waiting for the Education Department to reveal a master plan.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions and that is why we have been pushing so hard since late June, saying we need to get something up for parents and teachers and students, so everybody can see it coming and get ready, and, of course, it looks like the province has doubled down on ‘we’ll tell you when we’re ready to tell you’ and everything will be fine and a lot of families just know that a month is not enough time to get ready for whatever is going to come,” said Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union that represents more than 9,000 public school teachers.
Wozney said many teachers who are over 50 or who have underlying health conditions are scared for their future.
“Those can be two separate groups or one person can sit in both groups,” he said. “We also have people who, besides age, have imuno deficiencies or suppressive disorders that are deeply concerned about their health and well-being and you have people who have those two overlapping factors and they are particularly wired for sound right now. In behind that, you have people who are primary care-givers for partners, spouses or elderly relatives who they are deeply worried about, whether it means to go to school and potentially bring the virus home. Those concerns remain front-of-mind for a lot of teachers.”
Wozney said social distancing in schools often will not work.
“If you’re teaching Primary to 2, I don’t think any reasonable adult thinks that any kids four to seven years of age have the kind of impulse control necessary to maintain social distancing all throughout an entire school day,” Wozney said. “It’s not going to happen.”
Don't go back to remote learning
At the high school level, he said “every student has a unique schedule and has to physically shuffle between multiple learning spaces.”
“You just can’t park 32 high school students in one room and rotate adults because the schedules are just too different.”
Arsenault and Wozney agreed that a return to remote learning cannot and should not happen.
Wozney said “everybody recognizes what students missed" in the three and a half months that schools were closed to help flatten the COVID curve.
“It was a real struggle for students,” Wozney said. “Teachers weren’t able to do the best job when they don’t have students in front of them. As teachers, we are not ready to do remote learning at a world-class level on 10 days notice. It is a very, very different kind of work.”
The union president, the letter writers and the busy mom shared a unanimous concern that an influx of people coming across the Nova Scotia border could jeopardize school reopenings.
"My personal worry is that teachers and students and parents just suffered enormously for four months so that we could have an opportunity to reopen the province," Wozney said. "Now, we’ve got thousands of people from outside of the Atlantic bubble running all over our province from arguably some of the most highly infected areas of Canada and some of the most infected areas of the United States. What is that going to do to our infection rates and is that going to make it necessary for public education to take a back seat to the economy again rather than a reopening plan for schools being at the centre of reopening the province."
Arsenault advocated for school advisory committees and said “government should work collaboratively with parents to go beyond consultations and broad surveys and make sure that we are part of the decision making about our education system.”
The letter pointed out that questions like what accommodations will be made for teachers and students who cannot risk a return to the classroom as long as Covid-19 exposure remains a risk need to be answered now, not in three weeks.
“We are parents, and also voters, and if your government continues to put our children last in its response to Covid-19, we will not forget,” the letter concludes.