Less than two weeks after announcing all Nova Scotia schools would be closed for the year, Premier Iain Rankin said Monday that in fact Halifax and Sydney schools reopen on Thursday.
Rankin previously said schools outside of those regions will reopen Wednesday.
Rankin said falling COVID-19 numbers led to his reversal.
Schools, regional centres for education and the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial will provide more information to families later today, according to a news release from the Department of Education.
School gyms will remain closed to community use. School sports teams will be allowed to practise inside the school but there will be no games.
Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, said he is "extremely comfortable" with the decision to reopen schools.
While a number of students and teachers tested positive for COVID-19 during the province's third wave, Strang said the majority of them were exposed to the virus outside the school setting and there were no wide outbreaks within schools.
"Now we're back to a place where we really have little to no community transmission, even in HRM, and none elsewhere. Our schools remain extremely safe," he said.
Rankin said the decision was made in consultation with the Department of Education, which said it needed until Thursday to prepare.
Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said they had not been consulted about the change. Teachers in Halifax and Sydney have two days to prepare to switch from shorter online lesson plans to full-day lesson plans.
Rankin also said that from Tuesday, all travel restrictions within Nova Scotia will be lifted.
"People can go to their cottages, go fishing or hike a trail in another municipality, or even visit family. You must, however, follow the restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings," Strang said.
17 new cases Monday
The province reported 17 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday along with 74 recoveries, bringing the total number of active cases to below 500 for the first time since late April.
All 17 new cases are in the central health zone, according to the province's COVID-19 dashboard.
Of the 448 active cases in the province, 314 are in the central health zone. Three of them are Nova Scotia Health staff.
Forty Nova Scotians are currently in hospital related to COVID-19, including 16 in intensive care.
Nova Scotia Health labs completed 3,781 tests on Sunday. With 17 positive tests, that yields a positivity rate of 0.4 per cent. Three weeks ago, that number was 2.5 per cent, when the province recorded 121 new cases out of 5,021 tests.
More than 8,000 rapid tests were completed in the Halifax area over the weekend. Rankin said only three of those tests were positive, leading to a 0.03 per cent positivity rate among those rapid tests.
Over the weekend, the province reported five deaths related to COVID-19. Strang said this is a "stark reminder" of how important it is for the province to reopen slowly.
"One dose of vaccine not enough protection to completely relax restrictions that have kept us safe for last 15 months," he said.
Later this week, the province will provide data on whether third wave cases, including hospitalization and deaths, have been vaccinated with either one or both doses.
Strang said it's "completely expected" that someone who has been vaccinated could get sick or die from the virus, because even with both doses no vaccine is 100 per cent effective.
"Some people are looking at this and using it as a way to say the vaccine doesn't work, and that is completely wrong," he said.
Reopening begins Wednesday
On Friday, Rankin and Strang announced details of Nova Scotia's reopening plan, the first phase of which begins Wednesday.
"In this first phase we need to be focused on outdoors and keeping gatherings small ... Visits and hugs with loved ones are coming," Strang said, adding in phase one you can visit and hug your family and friends but those visits must happen outdoors.
Strang said the timing of future phases will be contingent on the province's COVID-19 epidemiology, vaccine rollout and capacity within public health and the health-care system to manage any new cases.
Vaccine appointments are now available to everyone in Nova Scotia aged 12 and up and so far about 50 per cent of the total population has received at least one dose.
On Monday, Strang told CBC's Information Morning he's confident Nova Scotia will meet the vaccine targets laid out in the reopening plan and optimistic the plan will advance in two-week intervals. Each phase is slated to last between two and four weeks.
"A lot of people would say, and I agree, it would have to be three to four weeks, but we feel with vaccination rates that may well allow us to be just in that one incubation period — two weeks," Strang said.
The province's active caseload has been dropping steadily for the past two weeks. As of Monday, the 448 known active cases are mostly in the central and eastern health zones.
There is a "little bit" of community spread in the central zone, which Strang said is "mostly in confined populations."
There had previously been confirmed community spread in the eastern health zone. But the Health Department said in a news release Monday that the zone, along with the northern and western zones, "continue to be closely monitored for community spread."
Atlantic bubble discussions ongoing
Strang said discussions on the Atlantic bubble are ongoing. Nova Scotia could enter phase three of its reopening plan by early July, which would include opening the border to people in Atlantic Canada, but Strang said he is still wary of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island's border measures.
"The bubble only works if you have a strong bubble around the provinces," said Strang.
"If there's lots of holes in the bubble ... it'll collapse."
He said reopening plans from New Brunswick and P.E.I. are "prematurely aggressive" when it comes to letting people from outside Atlantic Canada in without having to quarantine.
Strang said by phase four, the province might consider a "modified" quarantine period for travellers from outside Atlantic Canada, which would be based on vaccine status, border testing, and epidemiology in other provinces.
No decision has been made yet on how testing could be implemented at the province's land border with New Brunswick. Strang said there are "substantive logistical challenges" around impeding the safe flow of traffic.
Once Nova Scotia reaches phase four of its five-phase plan, likely by mid-July, Strang said that is where the province would stay for the remainder of the summer.
It would see indoor gatherings of up to 25 people, and outdoor gatherings of up to 50 people. Restaurants and bars would be able to operate at full capacity, provided public health measures can still be followed.
"I know we can do this. We've gone 15 months and we're only a few weeks away from summer together. We just need to stick with it a bit longer," Strang said.
Atlantic Canada case numbers
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