The head of the Nova Scotia Teachers' Union [NSTU] says his members have split feelings about the decision to continue requiring masks in schools for the time being.
Nova Scotia has entered Phase 3 of its reopening plan, and as of Monday, COVID-19 measures such as gathering limits, physical distancing and masks are no longer mandated in most settings.
Originally, the plan was to have students return from March Break this week to classrooms where masking would be optional, however on Friday, Premier Tim Houston announced the mask requirement would stick around until mid-April.
The change came after the Nova Scotia Pediatric Pandemic Advisory Group -- comprised of eight leading pediatric doctors -- penned an open letter asking for the face coverings to remain in the school setting.
"It [would have been] difficult for the province to not act on the open letter that came from the IWK for the continuation of masking," NSTU president Paul Wozney told CityNews Halifax.
"Masks are ... probably the most minimally intrusive restriction we have," he added. "It's low cost and we're in the habit of doing it."
He said keeping the mandate for now makes sense, but not all school staff feel the same way, adding masks have become a barrier for those who teach language skills.
"The inability of young children to see an adult's mouth forming sounds as part of language acquisition," Wozney explained. "And the inability of staff to see kids and the way their mouths move, being able to correct the way words and sounds are pronounced."
On the other hand, immunocompromised staff and students -- and those with immunocompromised loved ones -- want to keep the extra layer of protection.
Wozney said, just because COVID-19 cases in schools are no longer publicly being reported, doesn't mean they don't exist.
"Based on what I'm hearing from members and what other union leaders are hearing from their folks in schools, we've never had more COVID present in schools at any point in the pandemic than we have right now," he stated.
He said that means the system is facing significant staffing challenges because there aren't enough replacements to cover those who are sick or isolating.
"Schools really aren't healthy, well-functioning places right now," he explained. "There's loads of instances where parents report students having a different person in the classroom every day for a period of weeks just because a teacher is COVID positive."
According to Wozney, the extra pressure is making many teachers consider other career options, early retirement or heading to a jurisdiction with better working conditions.
"It's a global teacher shortage, it's not just a Nova Scotia issue, but if we don't wake up to the pressures that we're facing, and we don't take steps to make teaching in Nova Scotia among the most attractive propositions in the country, we're going to be out competed for qualified grade teachers," he explained. "They will pack up and move elsewhere."
"That's one of the things we're going to have to wrestle with coming out of the pandemic."