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What you need to know about COVID-19: October 20, 2020
“All schools must follow the Public Health Order issued by the Chief Medical Officer of Health,” except when they can’t, in which case they won’t.
The quote’s from a document called COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for Schools, an appendix to the full 32page edition of Nova Scotia’s Back to School Plan released Wednesday. The commentary following the quote, of course, is mine.
Indeed, the chief medical officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang acknowledged that part two of the public health order, which establishes the two-metre rule, will be impossible to follow in most classrooms that will fill with students on Sept. 8, barring a spike in cases between now and then.
Dr. Strang didn’t reference his order when he spoke in support of the government’s plan, but he conceded that physical distancing in most classrooms won’t happen, at least not two metres worth. He’s hoping schools can keep kids at least a metre apart, to which every teacher in Nova Scotia replied, “Fat chance.”
The two-metre rule is widely known, but for the record it reads: “All persons present and residing in Nova Scotia must maintain physical distancing of two metres (six feet).”
The rule is waived for social gatherings of up to 10 people but classrooms with 10 or fewer kids are rare to nonexistent. And, while school is a social gathering — but not exclusively — it’s not what the public health folks had in mind when they allowed the 10-person exemption.
Some may find wiggle room in the document’s characterization as “guidance,” but the direction was made explicit by the use of the word “must.”
The fact is that schools can’t open fully and meet the conditions of the public health order on physical distancing, and that may not be the only part of the order that could cause some problems for Plan A, which is to get all kids back in schools, where they belong.
Part one of the order spells out isolation and quarantine requirements. It tells us that anyone “identified as a close contact of a person who has or has been diagnosed with COVID-19 must self-quarantine or self- isolate (from) the first day of close contact ... continuing thereafter for 14 consecutive days or as directed by a Medical Officer of Health.”
One case of COVID-19 in a school would be considered an outbreak, according to the public health guidance, and it seems likely that an outbreak in a school, even if it’s one case, would result in a large number of close contacts. It follows that a single case could close an entire school, at least for 14 days.
None of this is intended to say that the province’s back-to-school plan isn’t a good one, because overall and under the circumstances, it is.
But the NDP have a point too, when they say it lacks clarity.
The plan gets murky when viewed alongside other critical COVID-19 information from the province, and the public health order is the most critical of all. It’s there you will find the rules you are expected to follow or risk a fine, jail, or worse, a dressing down from Premier Stephen Mcneil.
Strang has discretionary power to grant exceptions to the order, but that discretionary power is intended for use in exceptional circumstances. The province’s duty to keep kids safe in school isn’t an exceptional circumstance. It’s an everyday requirement.
Clarity and consistency from the government is absolutely critical to all aspects of managing the health crisis, and no where is it more vital than in decisions affecting the education and the wellbeing of Nova Scotia’s kids.
The back to school plan emphasizes flexibility and balance. The plan needs to be flexible enough to respond to everything from a small flareup of COVID-19 right up to a second wave that sweeps the province.
And it is.
It also needs to balance the imperative of getting students back in classrooms with the health risk that is still very much with us.
It meets that test, too. But parents and teachers were left with a lot of questions and the province has a responsibility to answer those questions clearly and as soon as it can.
On that score, the Conservatives have it right in saying that Education Minister Zach Churchill should provide regular, detailed updates over the coming weeks when he is able to answer the questions that parents, teachers and students still have.