Nova Scotia parents impatient for school COVID-19 plan

Saltwire (Chronicle Herald) John McPheee, August 11, 2021

Like many parents across Nova Scotia, Stacey Rudderham is losing her patience as she waits to hear the province’s COVID-19 plans for the school year that begins in a few weeks.

One of her daughters, who will head back to high school on Sept. 7, has both of her COVID-19 vaccine shots. But her youngest daughter won’t be eligible until she turns 12 in November.

“The most vulnerable group … are the ones that can’t get vaccinated right now, the … under 12s,” Rudderham said in an interview at her Fall River home.

“So it’s a big chunk of our school population and we haven’t heard any plan about how things are going to be dealt with, what the masking rules are going to be, cohorting, smaller class sizes. We haven’t heard any plans of any kind.”

In a letter to parents sent out Wednesday, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, said a detailed COVID-19 plan for schools will be released “soon.”

In the letter Strang also urged parents to make sure eligible children (12 and up) get their vaccine shots.

“The sooner people get two doses of the vaccine, the sooner they will be fully protected, which also means they are protecting children under 12 years of age and others who cannot get the vaccine, as well as families and friends,” Strang said.

As of Wednesday, about 67 per cent of Nova Scotians had been fully immunized. Strang has said that number must reach at least 75 per cent before more COVID-19 restrictions can be lifted as part of the province’s Phase 5 of reopening.

High alert in fall

Susan Kirkland, a professor and researcher at Dalhousie University’s community health and epidemiology department, said she feels we must continue to take precautions in indoor spaces this fall, especially for students who cannot be immunized.

While emphasizing she’s not an expert in the school setting, Kirkland said in an email that “ventilation, class sizes, masks, and social distancing are the tools we have.”

While the epidemiology looks good at the moment, the COVID-19 situation can change quickly.

“Fall will be a time to be on high alert in my opinion, as restrictions are lifted, we move indoors, and the Delta variant lurks. Kids need to be in school, and we need to make it as safe as we can.”

Election interruption

The wait for the school COVID-19 plan comes amid a provincial election campaign although the Education Department has denied any link to the timing of the plan’s release.

“That’s one of the (problems) of having an election in the summertime when such a situation exists,” Rudderham said. “We’re not planning, we’re not talking, we’re not having those discussions. We don’t know who to call or who to speak to.”

Rudderham, who is co-chair of Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, said the group wants to see a masking policy put in place, especially for the young children who are not yet vaccinated.

“Smaller class sizes, which is something we’ve been asking for since COVID started, and also some progress on the ventilation issues that have been front and centre.”

The province has been upgrading school ventilation systems – in an attempt to reduce the airborne spread of the virus – but few details have been released on specific projects.

Ventilation targeted

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union also has been pushing for more information about exactly what’s been done to improve ventilation in schools.

President Paul Wozney said that’s become even more important in recent weeks given the rise of the Delta variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“We know that very little has been done to address ventilation in classrooms and that matters because we know now that the Delta variant is no longer a droplet spread virus, it’s an aerosol spread virus,” he said in a recent interview.

“So that means the proper air filtration is even more important than it was last August when the original iteration of the virus was the droplet transmitted disease.”

Wozney noted that about 700 COVID-19 cases have been linked to school spread between April and May.

“We remain concerned about schools as a potential site for exposures to spread,” he said.

The Education Department has said three sets of ventilation tests will be done in all Nova Scotia schools this year.

Mandatory vaccination

Halifax parent Melanie White said she’d like to see a mandatory vaccination order for anyone who works in schools, particularly given that children under 12 can’t get immunized.

White has two children, one of whom is going to a university that will offer some online courses.

“But for my daughter who’s going into Grade 11, she’s double-vaxxed so I think all the teachers need to be as well,” she said in a recent interview.

Like many people, White is worried about the possible spread of the Delta variant into Nova Scotia schools.

“If they can’t make the vaccine mandatory and the Delta (variant) does come in, then I want to see the exact same things that they had last year: The masks, the cleaning, shut down the schools if there is a case and clean it.”

Asked about the need for mandatory vaccination, Wozney said according to the union’s “anecdotal” information, teachers as a population outpace the general public in terms of being fully vaccinated.

“So whether or not mandatory vaccines are going to serve as some sort of magical protection, there’s an assumption that education workers are resistant to vaccines and the data shows that to the contrary. Education workers have rushed to the earliest possible opportunity by and large to be vaccinated as soon as possible.”

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