Lack of staggered approach to re-opening schools a questionable decision

It has been a little over a week now since the Nova Scotia government announced its “plan” for reopening schools come September, and I have to admit, I am still at a loss.

I use the word “plan” fairly generously here. Having read and re-read “Nova Scotia’s Back to School Plan“, I believe ‘framework” might have been a more suitable term. Or perhaps “blue print”?

“Rough outline”?

You see, a plan, by its very nature, contains not just ideas about what will be done, but also how those ideas will develop. And although The Plan does lay out a number of “whats” as far as how student and staff safety is going to be handled come the fall, the absence of “hows” have me a bit befuddled.

How will students move safely through the hallways? How will shared manipulatives like counting blocks or shared learning spaces like chemistry labs be cleaned? Will soft spoken teachers be provided with voice amplification tools to help them provide instruction and maintain order? What about children that have underlying medical issues? What about fire drills? Lock down drills?

How does a school handle the simple act of dismissing upwards of a thousand kids at the the end of the day and maintain even two feet between them, let alone six?

It appears I am not alone in my befuddlement. If you have been watching social media at all, teachers and parents alike have been raising alarm bells. Almost immediately after the plan was released, NSTU President, Paul Wozney, posted on Facebook, decrying the plan in its current state. According to Wozney, the original “Scenario 1” template included “…physically distanced/cohorted/reduced size classes for P-9 & blended learning for high school”, and was apparently abandoned by the government against the wishes of the NSTU.

The Facebook site Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education has also been rife with concerns, with a number of parents now considering home schooling as a viable alternative to sending their kids back under the proposed model. Politically, the oppositions parties, in a rare show of solidarity, recently attempted to use a Human Resources Committee meeting to force the government to open up a forum through which the public could express concerns and have their questions answered. Not surprisingly, considering how much this government avoids collaboration unless its suits them, those efforts were quashed by the Liberal majority.

Despite my palpable dislike for how the McNeil Liberals go about their business, it must be recognized that there are many other jurisdictions where folks are not particularly happy about how September will be handled. In Alberta, the United Conservative Party of Jason Kenney has come under fire for their “vague” back to school plan, (which, it should be noted, is strikingly similar to our own). In a recent story in the Calgary Herald, Alberta Teacher Association President Jason Shilling was quoted as saying “I have run out of words to describe how concerned we are about this.” In Saskatchewan, pressure from education stakeholders inspired the opposition NDP to release its own plan* to counter the one released by the Saskatchewan Party in June, in an attempt to “ease parent and teacher anxiety” about the return. Tensions are also running high in the Yukon, where parents are concerned about that jurisdiction’s partial return.

Perhaps not surprisingly, things are even more contentious amongst our American cousins. There, a number of infectious disease experts have come out to express concerns that schools could become the epicenter of COVID spread this fall. In response to pressure from the Trump administration to get schools open again, regardless of safety measures, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) recently indicated that they may be considering a series of “safety strikes” once school starts up again. In a recent speech, AFT President Randi Weingarten explained that when it came to keeping kids and teachers safe, nothing was off the table.

Obviously the approach to COVID has been much more cavalier in the US than in Canada, and our numbers are certainly dropping here in Nova Scotia, as they are all across the Maritimes. However, we have to recognize that schools are not like anything else. They were never designed around maximizing space between children, any more than they were designed to be particularly well ventilated. I can think of no other public space designed to get as many individuals crammed into one area, with the exception of perhaps hockey rinks, many of which, we should remember, will remain closed to spectators come the fall.

So with all of these unknowns, with all the uncertainty, with all the fear, I find myself pondering a fairly obvious question.

Why is it that schools are not opening gradually?

With everything COVID, caution has been the operative word. Travel restrictions were lifted slowly. Isolation bubbles were expanded slowly. Restaurants, bars, legions, summer camps, youth sports, all opening slowly. In every aspect of our getting-back-to-some-sense-of-normalcy plan, we have transitioned cautiously, carefully and often painfully slowly.

How in the heck does it make any sense to throw the doors of our schools wide open and cram over one hundred thousand Nova Scotians into them come September 8th?

I’m no medical expert, but for my money, the answer to that question is that it doesn’t.

I simply can’t wrap my head around why we are not taking a slower, more cautious approach. Perhaps we could start by dividing our student populations into four groups. On the first week of school, have buildings operate at twenty-five percent capacity. Use September 8th to 11th purely to get kids (and teachers) used to the new routines. Here’s where you walk. Here’s how you use a mask. Here’s where you sit. Here’s how we do recess. Repeat that process for  September 14th to the 17th; twenty-five percent capacity for four days. September 18th becomes a day to examine the procedures and prepare for Monday, September 21st, (almost a full 14 days later) when we go to fifty percent. If all goes well, we look to open fully, and more importantly, safely, by the first week of October.

I am just spit balling here, of course. Every solution presents its own series of problems, and a gradual opening would be no exception to that. We all understand the reasoning and the rationale for reopening schools. Kids need school. Parents needs their kids in school. Society needs parents to have their kids in school. But if we mess this up, if back-to-school goes poorly and the buildings prove to be the petri-dishes that some people fear they will be, we will end up under complete shut down again.

That is not only an unwelcome possibility, it is an unacceptable one.

Nova Scotia has, to its credit, done an exceptional job of limiting the spread of COVID-19. That has been done because of a cautious, careful, “Stay the blazes home!” approach.

Why a similar level of caution is not being exercised towards reopening our school system has me, and many many others, completely baffled.

Let’s take it slow, folks. We can not afford to get this one wrong.

*Author’s note: An earlier version of this story erroneously identified the NDP as the governing party of Saskatchewan. That particular honor, of course, belongs to the Saskatchewan party. 

2 Comments

Filed under COVID-19, Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary, Nova Scotia Education Policy, Public education

2 responses to “Lack of staggered approach to re-opening schools a questionable decision

  1. Bob Walters

    Well-written piece, except that you have the wrong party governing Saskatchewan.  That province is currently being governed by the Saskatchewan Party under Premier Scott Moe.  The NDP are the official opposition and have been since 2007.

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