Why not listen to teachers and delay in-person school a couple of weeks, Mr. Houston. Live up to the “progressive” in your party’s name!

My last blog post was written on the eve of the August provincial election where I was extolling the virtues of minority governments and the progressive change that collaboration can bring about. When the “Progressive” Conservatives squeaked out a tiny majority in NS, mostly on the basis of their platform of “fixing” healthcare, initially things looked a bit promising. The new government seemed to be continuing the previous government’s cautious approach to COVID, and there were even some positive initiatives (Owl’s Head, new training initiatives for nurses and long-term care workers). I even heard people suggesting that these Conservatives were more progressive than the Liberals!

Then we learned that Premier Tim Houston believes that there is no housing crisis – just increasing the housing supply will increase housing affordability (eventually perhaps – it hasn’t worked very well over the past 20 years). Now comes the Omicron variant. When cases exploded before Christmas, the government took the sensible step and closed school a few days before the holidays when they realized it was spreading in schools (all the while declaring that “COVID doesn’t spread in schools”). At the end of December, daily case counts were in the thousands and overloading the province’s testing capacity, so PCR tests were severely restricted (thus rendering daily case counts vastly underreported) and the government decided to delay the return to school for students for a week. By the end of that week, cases were through the roof, hospitalizations were starting to rise, and the government wisely declared the next week an “on-line learning week”. 

Nova Scotia had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other provinces who went back to in-person learning on January 10 – just reading the headlines should have been enough warning. Both Saskatchewan and Alberta experienced high rates of teacher absences, and had to scramble to cover classes – what is the educational (and safety) value of in-person learning when it means combining classes or having unqualified people teaching? On Thursday Jan. 13, all the other Atlantic provinces announced delaying their return to in-person classes until at least Jan 24 or 31  to safeguard  the teachers and students. 

Unfortunately, Nova Scotia did not follow suit. In the middle of the biggest outbreak of COVID we’ve seen so far in this 3rd year of the pandemic the government decided to open schools for in-person learning on Jan. 17. Although teachers (and their union) agree that in-person learning is important for mental health (and many other reasons) many teachers and students  have not been able to be fully vaccinated yet.  An extra week or two of online learning would allow more to be fully vaccinated, and perhaps flatten the curve of hospitalizations and deaths.  The messaging from the government has  claimed upgraded ventilation, 3 ply masks for all students, and cohorting  were in place, which often turned out not to be true. However, the coup de grace was the government’s decision to stop contact tracing in schools, while telling educators they are not at liberty to tell parents when there has been a confirmed case in their class. Parents are not to be told if a child has been exposed at school and thus have no way of protecting the rest of their families.

So, school went back on Monday this week. Many parents were very conflicted about sending their children back (about 56% according to an unofficial poll taken by the Facebook group Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education). Teachers were and are scared – some that I talked to had tears in their eyes as they described the probable outcome – colleagues “going down”, children getting very sick, vulnerable family members dying. Unspoken was the fear that a child could die as a result (and this week’s news reported an otherwise healthy child in Calgary dying of COVID).  Some teachers cited safety conditions (lack of ventilation or crowded classrooms) in refusing to work – and were reassigned to other duties or other schools. A few teachers are protesting the lack of contact tracing in front of their MLA’s office after school. 

Meanwhile, the Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education has reactivated their “cases in schools” reporting tool, which by this morning reported 192 cases, mostly in HRM, a number that is vastly underrepresenting the true number of cases as it relies on self-reporting of members of the group. Official reported daily cases are hovering around the 500-700 mark in the province (because of the lack of PCR testing, the real number could be as much as 5 times higher), hospitalizations are rising and there have been 3 deaths a day for the past couple of days. It’s still too early to tell where this will lead, but I am fearful we will see another spike.

But one thing is clear – there has been nothing this new government has done to send a message to teachers that they will be respected or listened to anymore than the last government. Remember the Glaze Report, Bill 75 and the lockout of teachers? See  https://progressiveeducationnovascotia.com/2018/02/  The “Progressive” Conservatives had the opportunity to prioritize teachers for booster shots back at the beginning of the Omicron surge and they didn’t. They could have shortened the waiting time between doses for kids aged 5-11 (as other provinces did) so they could get their two doses by the start of in-person learning, and they didn’t. They’ve had 6 months to use some of the $40 million in federal funds to make schools safer – installing ventilation in schools that don’t have it, upgrading ventilation in schools that have old systems, giving proper PPE to staff, making smaller classes – and they didn’t. Instead, there were confusing press conferences in which teacher and parent groups were accused of fostering fear and anxiety and spreading misinformation. We were told that there needs to be in-person learning right now because as Houston said, “the brutal reality is that for some kids, school is the place where they are safest…it’s sad but true. It’s the place where they are most warm…and they get food” – implying that child poverty (1 in 4 children in NS) is something that in addition to everything else, it’s teachers’ job to fix (but not his job to do something about in the provincial budget). When they object to unsafe learning conditions, teachers are derelict in their duty to these children.

The bottom line is: educators had legitimate requests and concerns about going back to in-person learning in the middle of the fifth wave, and they were disregarded. This doesn’t bode well for the future. Although I’m hoping that Houston and his colleagues can learn from this, and in future, no matter what the issue is, listen to the people most intimately involved in it (usually the workers) while making their difficult decisions, so far they are not living up to their “Progressive” name. Respect educators (and all other frontline workers), Mr. Houston!