The president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) says his biggest concern with students and staff returning to school in a few weeks is overcrowding in classrooms.
Many classes in the Halifax area have 25 to 30 students and the minimum requirement for distancing in schools has been reduced to one metre. That's down from the two-metre physical distancing protocol in effect at stores, restaurants and other indoor public gatherings.
The new distancing measures for in class were included as part of public health directives included in the province's back-to-school plan unveiled in July.
However, Paul Wozney believes the physical distancing requirements in schools tops his list of concerns because they've all but been abandoned. He says parts of the plan look good on-paper but suggests a lack of insight into how schools function day-to-day.
"Physical distancing remains in place everywhere else in our lives and yet, the one place we don't need to physically distance are classrooms and public schools. The major concerns there is physical distancing, masking and ventilation...those three overlapping factors...when they aren't in place it spells recipe for disaster," explained Wozney in an interview with News 95.7's The Rick Howe Show.
Wozney says the overcrowding issue - which was snowballing in HRM long before the pandemic - is being compounded by the rollout of the final phase of the pre-primary program in September which will add 2,300 young children to the system in H-R-M.
"We now have this program in public schools across Nova Scotia...and opening these programs in the middle of a global pandemic is exacerbating the ability of schools to spread students out. There is a direct relationship between the ability of schools to physically distance students to the best of their ability and the lack of space created by sending these programs into public schools this year."
In some cases, pods or modular classes are being added to accommodate for the influx of new students.
"From an idea perspective, publicly funded pre-primary should be a win-win-win. On paper, it's a program the NSTU can stand up and applaud...but it was supposed to be a pilot program and then we had an election and it was a way to garner favour with some of the voting public, we now have this program and opening this program is particularly felt in communities like Bedford but that's not to say it's not being felt in other communities," said Wozney. "It's a perfect storm and leaves many unanswered questions."
Early childhood educators are encouraged to conduct learning and play activities outdoors as much as possible, with a goal of at least 40 per cent of the day, when possible.
Increased cleaning protocols will be put in place in pre-primary classrooms which will help protect students and staff. The additional cleaning and disinfecting protocols will be in place to ensure that toys, equipment, shared items, and high touch areas are cleaned and disinfected regularly.
Meantime, a COVID-19 briefing will be held Friday at 12:00 p.m., Education Minister Zach Churchill is expected to provide further details on the province's back-to-school plan.