Open Letter to Minister Churchill from Tim Halman, Education Critic

Dear Minister Churchill,

Since you released your framework for the reopening of schools and providing Friday’s update, my office has received many questions from concerned parents, teachers, and students.

I acknowledge that the current plan contains many positive aspirational goals, however, there is a shortage of operational details that could give parents confidence in their children’s return to the classroom.

While your update on Friday reversed a previous decision regarding masks, there are still many questions left unanswered.

I am reiterating my request that your Department provide regular updates to concerned parents, teachers, and students so that they can be confident in a safe and meaningful educational environment this fall.

In the lead up to the commencement of the school year, the New Brunswick Minister of Education will be providing updates on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the remainder of August. Nova Scotians also deserve clarity for the reopening of schools in our province.

It is imperative that parents, students, and staff feel that the return to schools can be done safely and effectively. Answering these questions, and many more, is crucial to ensuring confidence in the school year ahead.

We have received the following questions that I would respectfully submit for a response:

  1. If a student is required to self isolate for two weeks, what resources are available for the student to participate through distance learning, even if schools are open?
  2. What is the threshold of COVID-19 infection among students or staff members that would result in closing schools?
  3. What plans are in place for isolating children who display symptoms throughout the school day?
  4. If a child has a cold, do they need a COVID-19 test before they can return to school?
  5. What testing protocols are required if a case of COVID-19 is identified in a school?
  6. If a student is sent home sick and displaying symptoms, what protocols are in place to ensure that their class or cohort have not contracted the virus and have potentially furthered community spread? And who will supervise them?
  7. How do school officials plan to deal with common colds and allergies, where symptoms can be mistaken for COVID-19?
  8. If a school has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, but the surrounding community has identified cases of community spread, would the school close down?
  9. If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19 will that class have to be tested and isolated at home?
  10. If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19 and students are required to isolate, do their entire families have to isolate?
  11. If their families do not have to isolate, will those families who have health professionals and long-term care workers, be required to isolate?
  12. What is the protocol if a teacher suddenly must quarantine?
  13. What happens if there is a shortage of substitute teachers or support staff?
  14. How many students fit in your average classroom with physical distancing?
  15. Other provinces, such as Ontario are capping high school class sizes at 15, does Nova Scotia plan to cap classes for high school, junior high or elementary school?
  16. What efforts are being made to reduce class sizes?
  17. How will lunch work? Will students be permitted to leave the school yard and how will cafeterias be operated? Will students have lunch breaks in shifts?
  18. What is the requirement for a student to qualify to participate in online learning? Will this option be made available to all students who do not feel comfortable returning to the classroom?
  19. Will there be additional mental health support for students struggling with the return to school, including fears about COVID-19?
  20. If all students will have access to a mental health assessment, who will conduct these assessments, given that currently, mental health professionals are shared between schools?
  21. What plans are available for immunocompromised students and staff?
  22. How will high risk staff be protected? What accommodations can be made and what kind of medical documentation is needed?
  23. What happens if a staff member feels strongly that they should isolate?
  24. If a parent chooses to keep their child home for the first few weeks in order to observe the epidemiology, will that student be penalized academically?
  25. Parents will need to plan around activities in the process of securing after school care. When can they expect to learn what sports and extracurriculars will be available?
  26. Will after school activities and programs exist in the same capacity as previous years, or operate on a scaled down basis?
  27. Will students be able to move around the classroom or do any group work?
  28. Can teachers give out handouts or must everything be done on chrome books or computers?
  29. Will elementary students be allowed to play with toys and if so, who is responsible for cleaning shared materials?
  30. Will resource and learning centre teachers deliver in-class support?
  31. Will resource and learning centre teachers deliver tier 2 support?
  32. Will Educational Program Assistants be working with multiple students across multiple classrooms?
  33. How will halls and bathrooms be monitored effectively?
  34. What kind of PPE and cleaning supplies will be provided and how much PPE can staff, and students use on a daily basis?
  35. What is the specific cost for hiring additional cleaning staff?
  36. Are bus drivers responsible for cleaning the busses?
  37. Will increased cleaning requirements be reflected in the contracts of bus drivers and custodians?
  38. If staff feel that student and/or staff safety are not being upheld, how should they proceed?
  39. To whom should staff report any safety concerns?
  40. Will teachers receive mental health professional development training, in order to better identify issues? The Minister indicated the system will take a trauma-informed approach.
  41. Will trauma-informed professional development be made available to teachers?
  42. If one particular region of schools is required to move to at-home learning, how will this impact the spring provincial assessments?
  43. Tele-education will continue to be used, so families have access to psychologists, counsellors, mental health clinicians, etc. Will ongoing confidential audio visual counselling and services be continued? Will these sessions take place during school hours? Will these experts still be available on school premises?
  44. How can playgrounds be cohorted at recess?
  45. Will the Minister identify core curriculum points, to ensure a base knowledge for next year? Shortfalls must be anticipated with possible transitions between learning environments.
  46. The Minister said that specific trades will be offered, but what about specialized programs like O2 & IB?
  47. Will the Department of Education see an increased budget for cleaning material and PPE?
  48. Did the Minister consider opening ‘student success centers’ early, as other provinces did?
  49. Will a concerted effort be made to ensure schools have support teams for diverse learning communities?
  50. How can students, without the internet at home, access the student success center?
  51. What steps have been taken to secure connectivity for students without home internet?
  52. What is the maximum amount of time student success centres can be used?
  53. What circumstances are acceptable for these staff to refuse to provide access to student success centres?
  54. Will some students be denied the resources of the student success centres at the request of the staff member?
  55. The Minister suggested that students would be expected to ‘self-evaluate’ prior to entering a school. At what age are students expected to ‘self evaluate’?
  56. Will teachers have an increased number of sick days to allow for COVID-19 testing?
  57. Has water been tested for lead levels?
  58. What cleaning protocols can we expect for the shared water coolers?
  59. Who qualifies as an ‘essential visitor’ to schools?
  60. What resources are available to parents who decide to homeschool their children in a COVID-19 context?
  61. If a student consistently violates Public Health protocols, what discipline measures do administrators have in order to help support/correct the behaviour of that student?
  62. What progress has the government made in renovating ventilation in schools across the province?
  63. Will all schools have safe ventilation systems (beyond merely opening windows as you suggested), for day one of school in September?
  64. What risk assessment has the Department of Education performed?
  65. Will the Department make any risk assessment public?
  66. Who is responsible for ensuring that the same safety standards are observed across regional centres for education?
  67. Attendance requirements have been adjusted to accommodate for COVID-19. What impacts will this have on the safe arrival program?
  68. How will fire drills and other emergency evacuation or lockdown procedures be updated and practiced to adhere to physical distancing guidelines?
  69. If lockers are not being used, where will students store items, particularly winter attire including winter coats and boots?
  70. Many schools don’t have full time custodians, as such, you announced funding for more custodians, when will the extra staff be hired for cleaning and sanitation and when will schools know how the additional staff has been allocated?
  71. What supports will be put in place for parents who have to work should a school suddenly have to be shut down to allow for an isolation period?
  72. What will the first day of school look like, will it be like other years where students arrive in a tight group and separate into classes with their teachers?
  73. What will be expected for student drop offs and cohorting?
  74. Who will be cleaning the materials used in the classroom, or are schools reverting to whole group instruction from the board?
  75. How will substitute teachers be protected when they are exposed to many different classes throughout any given week?
  76. How are teachers expected to enforce mandatory mask-wearing in classrooms and what instructions will be provided to them with respect to students who are unable to wear masks?
  77. What new cleaning and sanitizing instructions and protocols are being communicated to custodial staff?
  78. Are EA’s allowed to move between classrooms and between the learning center?
  79. Will spouses and children of travelling workers be allowed in schools while they are home from their shift self-isolating for 14 days?
  80. Will the return to school impact the spouses and children of long-term care staff and their ability to work?
  81. Will there be extra hand washing stations?
  82. If/when a localized breakout happens what is the plan for transitioning to online learning? Are Plans “B” and “C” already being developed and shared with teachers and parents at the local level?
  83. Will teachers be handing out and picking up materials such as textbooks and paper assignments?
  84. Are there any policies regarding teachers or students taking items from school (like textbooks) home and then returning them?
  85. How will music be taught if singing and shared instruments are discouraged?
  86. Will the Province install protective barriers around classroom or administrator desks?
  87. How will noon hour supervision take place if students are staying in classrooms?
  88. Will teachers no longer have a lunch break?
  89. Is the government going to provide educational staff, such as Educational Assistants, with PPE, like gloves in addition to the two announced masks, for when they need to be in close contact with students?
  90. Why are schools not gathering their staff for training so that all staff members are following safety protocols with consistency.
  91. If there is a grade that is split, like a grade 3/4 split, will only the students in grade 4 be required to wear masks?
  92. If students refuse to wash their hands (where required), what happens?
  93. Should staff members wear scrubs to school like healthcare workers?
  94. Do students continue to hand their jackets on hooks? When they do, their clothing items are close to other students, as are their bodies when they are getting ready to come or go.
  95. Will schools stagger arrival times and lunch hours to avoid crowded hallways before and after bell times?
  96. Will staff be able to gather/socialize/eat together in the staff room since they will all belong to different cohorts?
  97. Will students' temperatures be screened upon entry in our schools?
  98. Will pre-primary be expected to follow the same set of rules as other grades as outlined in the plan?
  99. What accommodations will be in place for teachers and staff who are caregivers to elderly parents, or others who are at greater risk for COVID-19?
  100. Will teachers and other staff be allowed to share printers and photocopiers?

The following are additional questions from the PC Caucus, based on plans from other provinces and guidelines from Public Health Canada:

  1. Public Health Canada recommends that schools “establish a 2 metre distance between children/youth, staff and volunteers, including when cohorted together. Will the government reconsider the current one meter gap guidelines? If not, how will the government instill confidence in concerned parents, teachers, and students in regards to not following this recommendation?
  2. Can young students consistently follow advice on physical distancing, hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and other personal preventive practices?
  3. How will children be taught how to identify symptoms of COVID-19 and speak to a staff member immediately if they are experiencing symptoms?
  4. Has the province prepared educational videos or curriculum material to teach students how and when to properly wash their hands?
  5. What will be done to reduce or prevent shaming, stigma and discrimination of students and teachers who contract the virus or show non-COVID related symptoms?
  6. Has signage that is appropriate for age, ability, reading level and language preferences to remind individuals to practice good hand and respiratory hygiene been created, procured, and in the process of being distributed?
  7. If appropriate signage has not been secured, what plans exist to ensure proper, age-appropriate signage in each school?
  8. Will schools develop new fire evacuation and fire drill plans to meet public safety and Public Health protocols?
  9. Has the government encouraged students, staff or volunteers, who are at high risk for disease, to consult their health care professional about staying at home?
  10. Has the government considered having teachers move between classes, rather than the students?
  11. What progress has been made in the evaluation of busing needs?
  12. Will busses be running at half capacity?
  13. What progress has been made in providing students with the appropriate resources to function in a home learning environment?
  14. What savings did schools see as a result of the lack of use of the physical infrastructure of schools this year?
  15. Will any savings be redistributed to securing PPE, as is being done in other provinces?
  16. Have separate entry and exit points been designated in each school’s plan to minimize contact at high traffic periods?
  17. Will Nova Scotia follow provinces like Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta in introducing a no sharing policy, for school supplies, foods and other items, to reduce contact between students?
  18. What additional duties does the government expect teachers and staff to take on?
  19. Does the government expect that additional duties placed on teachers, as a result of COVID-19, will impact bargaining in the next teacher’s contract?
  20. Through what means will parents be contacted in the event that a case of COVID-19 is identified at their child’s school?
  21. Will every parent be notified with each case, or only if the exposure was within their child’s cohort?
  22. Elementary teachers must call parents to inform them of any mid-day school closures due to snow/winter conditions, and they must call until they reach a parent, they cannot leave a voicemail. Will the COVID-19 protocols follow this practice?
  23. Will teachers be expected to do the same if a case of COVID-19 is identified within their cohort?
  24. How will the government evaluate the success of the return to school?
  25. How will the government communicate with parents and students to ensure that they understand the new rules and restrictions in this coming school year? Will they have to sign a waiver confirming their understanding?

This list is not exhaustive. There are many additional questions that remain outstanding. But we need to start somewhere.

I eagerly await your response.


Yours truly,

Tim Halman
MLA, Dartmouth East
PC Critic for Education and Early Childhood Education