Ten-year-old Milo Noble stood among the sign-waving demonstrators in Halifax, wishing for smaller classroom sizes and for all students to be wearing masks once schools reopen in a few weeks.
“Both my parents are teachers, I’m a student and I want us all to be safe,” said Milo, who joined his mom and dad at the Safe September Nova Scotia assembly held beside the Nova Scotia legislature on Monday.
Organized by Educators for Social Justice - Nova Scotia, the event drew roughly 100 participants, including school teachers and staff, parents, students and opposition MLAs. They demanded answers that the province's school reopening plan doesn't adequately address.
Milo’s dad Mark Noble, a teacher at Sackville High School, said smaller classrooms allowing for social distancing and masks are basic protection measures against COVID-19 that the government needs to put in place. He and his three family members go to four different schools and he’s concerned about virus spread.
“What’s the plan if one of us gets sick at a school, there’s no clear messaging," said Noble. “Am I supposed to stay home if my kid gets sick? Are we all supposed to stay home if any of us gets sick?
“I don’t see any collaborative decision happening.”
Since releasing its plan on July 22 to reopen schools at full capacity, the province has been facing many questions on how it intends to safeguard schools from the threat of COVID-19. Participants at Monday’s protest made their concerns — such as why doesn't the mandatory mask order for public spaces apply to all students and staff? — well known.
Will the government commit to smaller classrooms and adequate ventilation systems? They want concrete details on what would trigger school shutdowns and what equipment is being installed in schools to prevent virus spread.
Ben Sichel, a teacher at Prince Andrew High School in Dartmouth and an Educators for Social Justice member, said teachers are eager to get to work but they want proof they and students can do so safely.
“We are scared and we have legitimate fears and uncertainty," said Sichel. "Education Minister Zach Churchill and the government really need to answer our questions that have been out there for several weeks now."
He said the teachers have been trying to collaborate with the government on its reopening plan but have been shut out of the process.
Monday’s assembly was a move to push the province into providing a clear plan with clear answers.
“I really think the big impediment for the province is funding. They don’t want to spend the money to reduce class sizes. There are no easy answers and it’s going to be difficult but we don’t have time to wait anymore."
The government’s reopening plan includes some details on cohorting classes so that the same group of students and school staff remain together each day. Other precautions include staggered recesses and lunches, enhanced cleaning protocols, mandatory masks in hallways and on buses and distancing in classrooms. But the plan lacks specific details on how it will actually work in practice.
A teacher at the assembly challenged Minister Churchill to sit in a school classroom each day to prove he has faith in the government's plan.
“Put your money where your mouth is,” she said.
Dr. Ajantha Jayabarathan, a Halifax family doctor, said she supports parents' and teachers' demands for more answers. With the second wave of the virus expected this fall, Jayabarathan said the province needs to produce a detailed plan that includes requirements to wear masks and details on how proper social distancing protocols will be maintained. That will include, in some cases, alternative classroom space to allow for social distancing, she said.
“We’re heading for the fall where eventually more and more of us will be indoors. Often the infections we see in the fall and winter will start and spread in school and spill into the community. This year COVID is expected to do the same."
She said the province needs to also ensure that the virus is unable to multiply within classroom cohorts, given that COVID and the pandemic are “very much raging outside our borders.” She said masks, social distancing, and proper hand hygiene are essential to limit potential spread.
Tim Halman, Tory education critic and former teacher, attended the rally and called on the government to release a comprehensive plan that includes operational detail.
“These are my former colleagues and I know the concerns they’ve raised are very legitimate," said Halman. "All this so-called plan has done is elevate anxiety. It’s created more questions than answers. The best way to alleviate this is for the government to provide those operational details."
Claudia Chender, NDP education critic, also participated in the rally, demanding the government release a thorough plan, answering urgent concerns being raised.
"Right now when I talk to educators and parents they say that these questions are going into a void," said Chender. "They are demanding answers so that they feel they can send their kids back to school safely and they can go back to their workplaces safely. We absolutely support that call."
The Department of Education issued a statement saying it's developed the "best plan for Nova Scotian students" with input from more than 28,000 surveys from parents and students as well as feedback from teachers, direction from public health and advice from pediatricians and psychologists at the IWK.
The statement offered no timeline for when more information would be released but said "regional centres for education and CSAP (Conseil scolaire acadien provincial) have been communicating with their families and will continue to update them as we approach September. "