Two letters to the Editor

A few weeks ago, just after in-person learning resumed in Nova Scotia schools, this column appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald. It was written by Paul Bennett, and demonstrated such a complete lack of knowledge and empathy for what actually goes on in public schools that two members of Educators for Social Justice – NS independently wrote letters refuting it – Ben Sichel and I. They were both published on the same day (February 9, 2022) and I am reproducing them here for those that do not subscribe to the CH. Immediately below is the link to the original column:

My letter: Teachers, Parents not irrational

Paul Bennett’s op-ed “COVID hype breeds school hypervigilance” Saturday January 29 2022. characterizes a large proportion of teachers and about 57% of parents of young children as being “excessively anxious” and suffering from “cave syndrome” with “psychological fears, real and imagined”. Really? Are the majority of Nova Scotia parents and teachers actually irrational? After 2 years of a pandemic, and 6 weeks of omicron, many classrooms still do not have adequate ventilation, social distancing is a joke, the 3-ply masks promised turn out to be inadequate, contact tracing which parents relied on has been discontinued, classes are still too big – and all this in spite of a mostly unspent $40 million in federal government funds designated to make schools safe for in-person learning. Bennett doesn’t mention the fact that only about half of the children under 12 had received one dose of vaccine by Jan. 17 when in-person learning resumed, and none had received two. No 4 year-olds were vaccinated at all, and many teachers had not received their booster shots. All of these are real safety fears, and to treat them as imagined is belittling and arrogant.

Teachers taught successfully online for the week of Jan. 10-15. The issue is how long that should have continued. Just about everyone, teachers, parents, students and pediatricians, agrees that in-person learning is best for students – not just for mental health, but for actual learning. So when teachers and parents of the not-yet fully vaccinated under 12 children express reservations about going back to in-person learning so soon, especially when the 3 other Atlantic provinces decided to do one or two extra weeks of online learning to get past the peak of omicron, one would have hoped that the government might listen. Teachers warned about high rates of sickness and absences among staff that would impact the quality of the in-person learning, and the strain on those left to carry the burden. Parents worried about their children bringing omicron home to vulnerable family members. These worries were not irrational – all of these things have happened, and we are not finished with omicron yet.

Bennett claims that the parent Facebook group Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, built its membership by “creating an early-warning system for school-level exposures”. This group has existed since the teachers’ labour dispute with the government 4 years ago when it was created to support the teachers. At its peak it had almost 40,000 members. Its case reporting tool relies on anonymous reporting by parents whose children tested positive, with the name of the school involved. To date it has recorded 780 cases (most likely there are many more) and has served its purpose of filling the gap left by the government, giving parents information that lets them make informed decisions about their children attending school. 

Educators and many parents had rational reasons for suggesting delaying the return to in-person schooling by one or two weeks. Their legitimate safety fears were ignored, and even the modest request by teachers that they be prioritized for booster shots, as other frontline workers were, was denied. No wonder they feel disrespected and demoralized, a situation left over from the previous government’s lockouts and forced contract. And for what? 2 weeks of what has been a chaotic, dangerous return to in-person school. 

Ben Sichel’s letter: Armchair Edu-critic insulated from COVID

Yesterday I spoke to an elementary school teacher who contracted COVID-19 from her class. The infection happened months ago, but the teacher is still off work due to long-term health complications. 

Earlier that morning I had read Paul Bennett’s latest column, in which he calls concerns about COVID in schools a “moral panic.” 

The so-called polarized debate about keeping schools open during Omicron is, like many such debates, over-simplified. On one side, the story goes, are those concerned about the virus spreading in schools; on the other are those who insist we need to “learn to live” with it. 

Reality is of course more nuanced. Nearly everyone wants schools to open. Many of us who spend our days in them, however, have been sorely disappointed by the lack of imagination (and more importantly, investment) in keeping students and staff truly safe — physically, mentally and emotionally. 

Even those who voice concern about schools opening would likely feel better if governments implemented any of the many reasonable precautions suggested throughout the past two years to make schools as safe as possible. During the current wave staff and students have not been provided with N95 masks; school staff were not prioritized for boosters; school reopenings were not delayed to allow children to get second doses of vaccines. Structural changes such as sending older students to school every second day in order to reduce contacts were never considered. There has never been any plan for equity for immunocompromised students and staff, for whom it is simply too dangerous to attend school in person. 

The province has still not legislated adequate paid sick days, which would allow parents to stay home with sick children rather than send them to school. Overcrowded classes, which made for poor learning conditions before the pandemic, make social distancing impossible.

Of course, none of these issues has ever registered for commentators like Mr. Bennett, who hasn’t worked in a classroom in decades and writes from the comfort of his home office. “Learning to live with COVID” means something different when you’re the one being told to put yourself at potential long-term risk. 

Our society has the means for us to take care of each other. We should make sure we do whatever we can to keep kids, school staff and other essential workers safe — and that’s a long way from what we’re doing.