While all public schools in Nova Scotia moved to remote learning this week, it’s important to remember that Nova Scotia’s students have had the longest sustained stretch of in person learning in Canada prior to the circuit break that began a few days ago. For that, we are all thankful.
It’s also a good time to remember that public education is far and away the single largest, most interconnected system at work in our province. Across NS, there are approximately 320 public school sites where 120,000 students and 20,000 staff report to learn & support learning daily.
Until recently when the 3rd wave hit, our schools and students were the envy of the nation. Prior to the 3rd wave, the largest number of schools with identified COVID cases within a two week period was 12, coming during the 2nd wave in Nov/Dec 2020.
One of those schools had 2 cases. The rest had 1.
Fast forward to today. Close to 50 public schools have been identified as having at least 1 positive case in the past two weeks. What is troubling about these recent numbers is that there is at least one school with dozens of cases, and two others with several. Yet, Public Health and EECD are not reporting this information in the way school cases were reported before remote learning was announced this week.
The data presented on April 30 by Dr. Strang show that over 1/6 current active cases are children 16 and younger.
We’ve been told that kids are not at risk and that schools are safe throughout the pandemic. This data, coupled with ongoing advocacy from the Nova Scotia Teachers Union about scant public health protocols in public school classrooms since last summer, has raised eyebrows about that claim.
This week, the move to remote learning came with changes to how positive cases are reported, apparently on a go forward basis: Public Health and EECD have indicated they will no longer report the total number of cases identified in/connected to each school. A list of schools is posted, but that list doesn’t specify how many cases have been identified at each one.
The rationale? Since everyone is learning from home and physically distanced, it shouldn’t matter.
At issue is that parents, students & staff now have no idea whether community spread is an issue at their site.
This change in reporting also coincides with a change in public health orders for several schools. Where, previously, students and staff at schools who were not identified as close contacts of known cases were “encouraged” to get tested but required to continue attending so long as they were asymptomatic while waiting for their results to come back. In contrast, at several schools where cases have been identified within the last ten days, entire staff populations (who were not identified as close contacts of the known case) have instead been ordered to get tested AND to remain in isolation until test results are known.
Nova Scotians can accept that as the epidemiology evolves, so too must Public Health’s approach. We’ve seen it happen throughout the pandemic. Dr. Strang has earned an incredible amount of trust because he has done so actively and often, and because those changes have worked.
So, changing protocols because of changing epidemiology isn’t what many families & staff are having difficulty swallowing.
What isn’t making sense to so many connected to schools are new reporting protocols that appear to shield actual data from view that directly impacts students & staff at a growing number of sites in a growing number of communities.
Everyone understands that no one has a right to know the identity of COVID positive individuals at their school site, but it raises serious questions about transparency in the public interest when families & staff aren’t allowed to know/see the actual case counts.
More plainly, the question feels like this: if there are multiple positive cases at the school my child attends/I work at and that number is growing, don’t I have a right to know that information?
Vast numbers of families and staff members feel strongly that they do.
At this point, we all know that whether schools re-open hinges on whether the next 10 days drive steep declines in positive case numbers. We know remote learning is a major component of achieving that goal, which is why staff & students are doing their part with all their hearts!
Still, the truth about COVID-19 in Nova Scotia’s schools must continue to be told plainly, clearly & consistently so that all families & school staff understand, based on trustworthy data, whether a return to in person learning is safe or whether remote learning must continue.
With close to 1/6 Nova Scotia schools with at least 1 positive case in communities from Metro to Cape Breton, and with 1/6 of all current positive cases impacting youth 16 & under, it’s a terrible time to jerk the wheel on how cases in schools are reported.
After students & staff have worked so hard to keep one another safe at schools with minimal protections since September, they deserve consistent reporting so they can be confident whether returning to in person learning is safe & possible at their site/in their area.