Nova Scotia's education minister offered reassurances Thursday that the school system is ready for in-class learning, despite calls from the teachers' union to keep students at home longer.
In addition to masking protocols and new ventilation systems in schools, Becky Druhan said the province plans to call in educators who aren't currently in classrooms and administrators who are able to teach to make up any staffing shortfalls.
"In terms of how we're going to deal with and handle staffing challenges that arrive with Omicron, we've been working on this specific question throughout the course of the pandemic," Druhan told reporters following a cabinet meeting.
"Those supports we've built [previously] and layered are still in place."
Students across Nova Scotia are expected to return to school for in-person learning beginning Monday. They've been learning remotely for nearly a week following an extended holiday break prompted by rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations fuelled by the Omicron variant.
Parents and educators have voiced concerns about infections or exposures affecting staffing levels, but Druhan said Thursday that available teachers will be deployed to various regions across the province as needed.
"All those supports are in place and ready to go if and when we need them," said Druhan.
Union voices concerns
Still, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union said it recommends that remote learning be extended until case numbers decline sharply.
"The NSTU continues to be concerned that the education system, once in-school classes resume, will experience operational pressures similar to what was experienced prior to the Christmas break, which will result in unplanned school closures," union president Paul Wozney said in a news release.
Wozney noted that Premier Tim Houston recently acknowledged during a COVID-19 briefing that school closures due to outbreaks and staff shortages are a possibility.
Two Atlantic provinces — P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador — announced Thursday that remote learning would be extended for at least one more week. Students in New Brunswick are also learning from home.
Wozney said his union continues to seek answers about how contact tracing will occur in schools.
"With only one work day until the resumption of in-person learning, we are requesting that government clarify what teachers should expect when a student reports being COVID-19 positive to a school … How are staff to exercise 'personal responsibility' and meet their obligation to protect students if they are not fully aware of the situation?" he said.
'We'll deal with those challenges as they arise'
Houston said last month that students who are sick or close contacts of a known case must stay home and follow public health guidance. He said if a student tests positive on a rapid test, their school principal should be notified.
The premier has repeatedly said that the best place for children is in school.
Druhan said various challenges may arise due to Omicron, but situations will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
"At the end of the day, we'll deal with those challenges as they arise … and do our best to work through them and ensure that we have kids in school, face to face, as much as we possibly can," she said.
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