Masks will still be required for students for at least a week or two after they return to Nova Scotia schools next month, although much of their routine will look the way it did before COVID-19 arrived in the province.
Premier-designate Tim Houston and Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, released Nova Scotia's back-to-school plan Monday. Students return to class Sept. 7, with teachers and administrators heading back before that.
When classes resume, masks will be required for anyone inside school buildings or on a bus. Masks can be removed for eating and drinking and participating in physical activity.
When the province reaches Phase 5 of its reopening plan, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 15, schools will transition to masks being optional, with support for those who wish to continue using them.
"With our epidemiology in this province, with our vaccination rates in this province, and our history — schools have been safe in this province through the whole pandemic," Houston told reporters during his first briefing alongside Strang since last week's provincial election.
"So I think when you factor in those things, I had great comfort in the plan I saw."
School will be as familiar as possible
There will be ongoing inspections and maintenance of school ventilation systems. Along with the mask requirement, high-touch surfaces will continue to be cleaned regularly and hand sanitizer will be readily available.
The school year will begin with full in-class learning, as well as the continued use of outdoor learning spaces. School counsellors, SchoolsPlus staff and other support systems will be in place and ready for students requiring assistance.
Music classes, band and sports will fully resume and students will have access to lockers and extracurricular activities. Community groups will be able to access gyms as long as they're following public health measures.
Strang said the current case count and the province's epidemiology justifies the approach the Education Department proposed. He said students and teachers can expect a more normal year than the last two, when COVID forced the shutdown of schools several times and a shift to online learning models.
"In-person schooling is vital for child and youth development. We need school to be as familiar as possible while keeping staff and students as safe as possible," said Strang.
Non-essential visitors will be permitted in schools, but they must follow public health safety protocols, and virtual visits and meetings are being encouraged. Parents and guardians of pre-primary and Primary students will be able to visit schools on their child's first day.
Should public health measures necessitate it, at-home learning would go ahead using a similar approach as last school year.
While neighbouring New Brunswick is requiring teachers to either show proof of vaccination or be tested regularly, Houston said that isn't being considered in Nova Scotia. He said the province is looking at an overall vaccine policy, but right now the province favours an education-based approach to encouraging people to get vaccinated.
Strang noted the majority of teachers in the province are 35 or older — age categories performing the best in terms of vaccine uptake.
"I don't think we have a huge amount of unvaccinated teachers out there," said Strang.
Teachers union welcomes plan
Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney told CBC News he's pleased the plan is now public, and that it seems to strike a good balance between keeping schools safe while taking into account current epidemiology.
Wozney said he's especially pleased to see the return of all hands-on learning, including in the arts and music.
"A lot of what engages many students is that hands-on, experiential learning," he said.
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