What Halifax and Sydney schools lose by staying closed in June | COVID-19 | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

What Halifax and Sydney schools lose by staying closed in June

"I don't want to go for a beer if my kids can't go to a classroom."

Premier Iain Rankin announced during Friday’s briefing what Nova Scotians could expect for the first phase of the provincial plan to loosen the most recent lockdown. Among the restrictions lifted, the one that was perhaps the most unexpected is that all in-person classes for public and private schools—except for schools in the Halifax Regional Municipality and Sydney—would return on Wednesday, June 2.

“We know that in-person schooling is best for children, and thanks to Nova Scotians following the rules, we can safely reopen schools to many of our students,” said premier Iain Rankin. “We want students in their classes with their peers, finishing the year strong.”

Allowing any schools to open is a major surprise; Rankin said last week that the province intended to have the more than 121,000 students in the province who were sent online in April stay there until the end of the year. "To the students, I know that's difficult that you won't be able to go back in person and see your friends," he said. "To the parents, I want to thank them for staying at home and keeping their children at home and learning from home. And to our teachers, thank you for your hard work and patience."

For some parents, like Krista Ritchie, last week's approach from Rankin really only confirmed one thing: “I just saw that as pushing education off the agenda so they didn’t have to think about it anymore,” Ritchie, a mother to three elementary-school-age children, told The Coast. “It was offensive to not prioritize our children.”

Ritchie, who works in education assessment, was among a growing group of parents and guardians who were frustrated when the province signalled it would not follow through on its long-touted commitment of schools being last one to close, and first to open. And even with Friday's change to open some schools, the tens of thousands of students in Halifax and Sydney are still not going back—although stores, restaurant patios and hair salons can open everywhere in the province.

“It makes me sad that our kids’ well-being is not front of mind for every adult working in the system with privilege, with voice, with power, to make decisions,” she said, underscoring how the province’s own back-to-school plan had outlined from the start that these institutions are a vital piece in the puzzle to mitigating the disproportionate impacts the pandemic has laid bare on some students.

“There will be a focus on equity by supporting students who are historically marginalized and racialized (African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaw students),” the document reads, adding that students who come from other groups “that have been traditionally under-represented and under-served” will also be provided special considerations.

“There are kids who school is their lifeline…we need to be thinking about them and we need to be prioritizing them,” Ritchie said.

At-home learning will continue for students in Halifax and Sydney but, the briefing notes, “there will be some exceptions for students with highly complex needs."

The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development previously told The Coast that the decision to keep kids at-home for the remainder of the year was based on the epidemiology at the time and the extension of public health restrictions into June.

“The switch to at-home learning was made due to the rising rates of spread in community,” said Jasmine Flemming, communications advisor for the department.

For teachers in Halifax and Sydney, who will still be leading at-home learning after schools in the rest of the province open, mental health concerns weigh heavily on their minds as they calculate the months and weeks it’ll be until they can be reunited with their students in the hallways.

“I’m seeing tears,” said one Halifax teacher, requesting his name not be used for fear of possible retribution from his colleagues. “I actually had to contact several families because of concerns about the mental health of my students,” he explained. Although at this late point in the year he’s unsure if it will necessarily make sense for high school students to return, given exam schedules mean they’ll only be in class for about a week.

“I think that the disruption of doing that again, it might not be of great benefit since kids are really sensitive to changes.”

Erica Baker, a child psychologist and parent to three kids within the HRCE network, said that while she agrees that high schoolers might not seem to benefit as much as the younger students—“especially the ones from Primary to Grade 3 who are at a critical time in terms of learning”—she does believe that getting a child back in school before the fall is vital for their well-being.

“Every single day matters,” said Baker, who specializes in treating children with neurocognitive disorders. ”Their anxiety level will really decrease when they think about going back in September, if they've physically been in the building already.”

Baker adds that this time would serve as an important stepping stone for setting kids up for success next year. Teachers and staff, she explained, can do a much better job of assessing where kids are at academically, but more importantly, emotionally, in person than they can online.

“I think it's crucial that we use this next month to find out which children are struggling the most and what are the things that we can potentially put in place at the school to help these kids.”

Assisting in bridging learning gaps, particularly for the previously identified vulnerable communities, is something the province also promised in its outlined plan, stating it would “make every effort to ensure students are not disadvantaged by COVID-19.”

For one Halifax-area teacher, the promises made at the outset of the year, specifically helping students who come from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, has not been lived up to. “I've got Grade 12s who are African Nova Scotian students. They were doing really well before we went online,” said the teacher, who spoke to The Coast on condition of anonymity.

But these students, she went on to explain, are now struggling. And she’s been left wondering: What happened to the government’s partial/blended response that specifically said “priority access to student support centres will be provided to students who have disproportionately experienced challenges with at-home learning?”

“I brought it up about getting our vulnerable kids in the building, even just for a bit to help them out. And that was met with a no. Straight-up no, we can't have kids in the building,” she said. “They say this is what they care about … but like can we get them in school? Can we help them? ‘No.’

“I've had students with COVID and, you know, they just think that they need to keep up with school and they need to keep going ‘cause there's all this pressure,” she said.

Pediatrician Joanna Holland, who works at the IWK, points out how school for some students is a “more safe place for them than home.”

“One kind of extreme condition, abuse and neglect, is something we as pediatricians have been concerned about across Canada,” she said during a phone call recently with The Coast.

The government, Holland went on to explain, really had a commitment to try to do what it could to avoid worsening these discrepancies. That applies to students in Halifax and Sydney, too.

And this conflict of what the government said it would do versus what it’s actually doing is what really gets at the heart of a lot of parents' gripes. Letting businesses in all areas of the province reopen, while limiting school reopening to certain regions, doesn't seem like a decision based on epidemiology or government promises.

“We were told all year, last closed, first open,” Krista Ritchie said, adding even if the kids are in there for just “one day or two weeks … it absolutely makes a difference.”

“I don't want to go for a beer if my kids can't go to a classroom."

Johanna Chisholm

Johanna Chisholm heads up The Coast’s audience and engagement team, assisting in all things digital and writing the daily newsletter, The Daily Drift. She previously worked as an international reporter in South Africa, Cambodia and Israel and has worked at places like the AFP, The Globe and Mail, and most recently...
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