Two Letters to the Editor

A few weeks ago, just after in-person learning resumed in Nova Scotia schools, this column appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald. It was written by Paul Bennett, and demonstrated such a complete lack of knowledge and empathy for what actually goes on in public schools that two members of Educators for Social Justice – NS independently wrote letters refuting it – Ben Sichel and I. They were both published on the same day (February 9, 2022) and I am reproducing them here for those that do not subscribe to the CH. Immediately below is the link to the original column:

https://www.saltwire.com/nova-scotia/opinion/paul-bennett-covid-hype-breeds-hypervigilance-on-school-cases-in-nova-scotia-100684723/

Molly Hurd’s letter: Teachers, Parents not irrational

Paul Bennett’s op-ed “COVID hype breeds school hypervigilance” Saturday January 29 2022. characterizes a large proportion of teachers and about 57% of parents of young children as being “excessively anxious” and suffering from “cave syndrome” with “psychological fears, real and imagined”. Really? Are the majority of Nova Scotia parents and teachers actually irrational? After 2 years of a pandemic, and 6 weeks of omicron, many classrooms still do not have adequate ventilation, social distancing is a joke, the 3-ply masks promised turn out to be inadequate, contact tracing which parents relied on has been discontinued, classes are still too big – and all this in spite of a mostly unspent $40 million in federal government funds designated to make schools safe for in-person learning. Bennett doesn’t mention the fact that only about half of the children under 12 had received one dose of vaccine by Jan. 17 when in-person learning resumed, and none had received two. No 4 year-olds were vaccinated at all, and many teachers had not received their booster shots. All of these are real safety fears, and to treat them as imagined is belittling and arrogant.

Teachers taught successfully online for the week of Jan. 10-15. The issue is how long that should have continued. Just about everyone, teachers, parents, students and pediatricians, agrees that in-person learning is best for students – not just for mental health, but for actual learning. So when teachers and parents of the not-yet fully vaccinated under 12 children express reservations about going back to in-person learning so soon, especially when the 3 other Atlantic provinces decided to do one or two extra weeks of online learning to get past the peak of omicron, one would have hoped that the government might listen. Teachers warned about high rates of sickness and absences among staff that would impact the quality of the in-person learning, and the strain on those left to carry the burden. Parents worried about their children bringing omicron home to vulnerable family members. These worries were not irrational – all of these things have happened, and we are not finished with omicron yet.

Bennett claims that the parent Facebook group Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, built its membership by “creating an early-warning system for school-level exposures”. This group has existed since the teachers’ labour dispute with the government 4 years ago when it was created to support the teachers. At its peak it had almost 40,000 members. Its case reporting tool relies on anonymous reporting by parents whose children tested positive, with the name of the school involved. To date it has recorded 780 cases (most likely there are many more) and has served its purpose of filling the gap left by the government, giving parents information that lets them make informed decisions about their children attending school. 

Educators and many parents had rational reasons for suggesting delaying the return to in-person schooling by one or two weeks. Their legitimate safety fears were ignored, and even the modest request by teachers that they be prioritized for booster shots, as other frontline workers were, was denied. No wonder they feel disrespected and demoralized, a situation left over from the previous government’s lockouts and forced contract. And for what? 2 weeks of what has been a chaotic, dangerous return to in-person school. 

Ben Sichel’s letter: Armchair Edu-critic insulated from COVID

Yesterday I spoke to an elementary school teacher who contracted COVID-19 from her class. The infection happened months ago, but the teacher is still off work due to long-term health complications. 

Earlier that morning I had read Paul Bennett’s latest column, in which he calls concerns about COVID in schools a “moral panic.” 

The so-called polarized debate about keeping schools open during Omicron is, like many such debates, over-simplified. On one side, the story goes, are those concerned about the virus spreading in schools; on the other are those who insist we need to “learn to live” with it. 

Reality is of course more nuanced. Nearly everyone wants schools to open. Many of us who spend our days in them, however, have been sorely disappointed by the lack of imagination (and more importantly, investment) in keeping students and staff truly safe — physically, mentally and emotionally. 

Even those who voice concern about schools opening would likely feel better if governments implemented any of the many reasonable precautions suggested throughout the past two years to make schools as safe as possible. During the current wave staff and students have not been provided with N95 masks; school staff were not prioritized for boosters; school reopenings were not delayed to allow children to get second doses of vaccines. Structural changes such as sending older students to school every second day in order to reduce contacts were never considered. There has never been any plan for equity for immunocompromised students and staff, for whom it is simply too dangerous to attend school in person. 

The province has still not legislated adequate paid sick days, which would allow parents to stay home with sick children rather than send them to school. Overcrowded classes, which made for poor learning conditions before the pandemic, make social distancing impossible.

Of course, none of these issues has ever registered for commentators like Mr. Bennett, who hasn’t worked in a classroom in decades and writes from the comfort of his home office. “Learning to live with COVID” means something different when you’re the one being told to put yourself at potential long-term risk. 

Our society has the means for us to take care of each other. We should make sure we do whatever we can to keep kids, school staff and other essential workers safe — and that’s a long way from what we’re doing. 

Schools are a safe, warm place – but they shouldn’t be the only ones

In recent press conferences, Premier Tim Houston acknowledged that many children in this province do not get their basic needs met at home. Among other things, he referred to cold/inadequate housing, lack of food, and lack of supports for our youngest citizens.

It’s great that the PC government has acknowledged the problems. Now, we demand it take action.

Eliminating child poverty won’t happen overnight, but this government can start by implementing the recommendations from the latest Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Nova Scotia’s Report Card on Child and Family Poverty, starting with raising the minimum wage to a living wage, increasing social assistance rates and legislating a minimum of 10 paid sick days for all workers in Nova Scotia.

The Premier’s comments came in the context of students needing to be in school to get their basic needs met. As educators, we know this is all too true. So many of our students come to school hungry, tired, or otherwise stressed from the effects of poverty and marginalization. Fully one-quarter of the province’s students live in poverty; in some parts of the province the number is even higher.

We acknowledge that school is an important social, emotional, and developmental mechanism. However, the province’s failure to come up with a safe, reliable school opening plan is creating even more stress for educators and families. Crowded classrooms and overworked staff are detrimental to learning at the best of times; during a pandemic they are dangerous. Government talks of in-person school as a panacea for student mental health, but when being in school can plausibly lead to serious illness, that is no longer true.

Closing schools causes hardship for families who struggle to find child care. As with many policies, these hardships affect those already struggling the most. Our government needs to make the emotional, mental and physical safety of our most marginalized children its utmost priority, both in the short and long term.

Lack of School Ventilation Upgrades Leaves Nova Scotia Students at Risk

Jan. 12, 2022

RYAN LUTES 

Ryan Lutes is a teacher at Halifax West High School and past-president of the Halifax City local of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. He lives in Bedford.

About a year ago, a freedom of information request by allNovaScotia revealed that the Nova Scotia government had not performed any ventilation or air quality testing in our schools.

Another year has gone by, and variants Delta and Omicron have made COVID-19 even more transmissible. We are dealing with day after day of new daily case records. Still, there has been no system-wide air quality or ventilation testing in our schools.

In addition, there has been no data released by the province to suggest any upgrades to any school ventilation systems, even though the federal government has provided a significant amount of money for that purpose. The only action taken has been that each school’s ventilation system has been checked to ensure it is “operating as intended.”

Recently, Education Minister Becky Druhan stated that “upgrades have been made to ventilation systems where that was determined to be necessary through the course of the pandemic.” Again, I would submit that this language does not paint an accurate picture of what systems are in place at each school. If significant upgrades have taken place, the government should release detailed information instead of hiding behind a ventilation report that is merely a set of checklists and vague jargon.

The fact is, there are 60+ schools in all corners of our province that do not have a mechanical ventilation system. It is difficult to understand what “upgrades” have taken place at these sites to ensure the air is safe, especially given the increased transmissibility of omicron.

Each regional centre for education has provided a checklist that states that 100 per cent of its respective ventilation systems are operating as intended. While this information is minimally helpful, there has been no testing to ensure that the air in each classroom would meet today’s air quality standards.

This is akin to turning on your car’s engine, seeing if it starts, but not taking the car for a test drive to see if it runs safely.

Let’s be clear, “operating as intended” doesn’t mean that the ventilation system and air quality are up to modern standards. It doesn’t indicate that our students are safe during a pandemic that has impacted over 80+ schools over the last month or so. “Operating as intended” means nothing more than the system is operating similarly to when it was originally installed. For those schools with no mechanical ventilation system, it’s difficult to contemplate what “operating as intended” even means.

For example, Burton Ettinger Elementary School was built in 1959 and does not have a mechanical ventilation system. Burton Ettinger was also recently temporarily closed for six days to help curb the spread of COVID-19. You’ll remember former Liberal education minister Zach Churchill came under fire for suggesting that older schools without mechanical systems will be able to stay properly ventilated by opening windows.

Apparently, opening windows has not been effective at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

The Nova Scotia government chose the language “operating as intended” very precisely. Unfortunately, that language provides no salient information and misleads the public to believe that ventilation systems are safe and up to modern standards.

Burton Ettinger is hardly an outlier in Nova Scotia schools. In fact, there are at least 60 schools in Nova Scotia that have no mechanical ventilation system. Yet, even with the absence of a proper, modern-day ventilation system, all of these schools received a seal of approval from their respective RCE. To make matters worse, many of these older buildings are elementary schools where, until recently, students could not be vaccinated. Opening a window in the middle of a Nova Scotia winter with an unvaccinated population should not be the best we can do, almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.

Modernizing school ventilation systems is an expensive and labour-intensive task. It would be unreasonable for anyone to expect that our government could modernize every ventilation system in a relatively short time.

However, other provinces (Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, P.E.I.) have attempted to address this issue, at least in the short term, by providing portable air filtration systems to each classroom. These systems augment the existing mechanical or passive system and would positively impact the safety of the students and school staff.

If Nova Scotia had gone in a similar direction, it is possible that we could have decreased the significant number of school exposure notices that we have seen recently. So, why is Nova Scotia dragging its feet on improving the ventilation in our schools?

The fact that we are almost two years into a global pandemic caused by a virus transmitted through the air, and our schools have made little progress in modernizing our ventilation systems, is extremely concerning.

It is incumbent on our government to make some significant investments in improving the ventilation in our schools. Our students and staff should not be at a more significant risk of contracting COVID-19 based on their particular school. All students and staff, even those who attend an older school without mechanical ventilation systems, deserve to be in safe spaces where COVID contraction is minimized.

Without any additional ventilation improvements, the Nova Scotia government cannot truthfully say that it is doing everything it can to keep our schools safe.

It’s well past time for our government to commit to testing the ventilation and air quality of every classroom, provide air filtration systems ASAP, and develop a long-term plan to have safe, quality air in all Nova Scotia schools.

Teacher Workload Meeting

Nova Scotia Teachers are exhausted and burning out faster than they can be replaced. Join us online this Wednesday, December 15 at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the ESJ Teacher Workload campaign and help bring it to more schools and teachers.

To participate, use the following link to register in advance for this meeting:
https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZcsc-CuqzosGNe_FjFTOn52mGVvk-kPbTuU

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

Additionally, consider confirming attendance via our Facebook event.

RYAN LUTES, BEN SICHEL & ANGELA GILLIS: Nova Scotia teachers at the end of their rope

Posted: Dec. 11, 2021

Originally published by the Chronicle Herald

A Teacher in the classroom during the pandemic.
“Teacher fatigue and stress are at an all-time high, due partly to the pandemic, but also to recent subtle and not-so-subtle decisions by educational authorities that have increased teacher workload,” write Ryan Lutes, Ben Sichel and Angela Gillis. – 123RF Stock Photo

Ryan Lutes, Ben Sichel and Angela Gillis are teachers in Halifax and members of Educators for Social Justice — Nova Scotia.

It’s always amazing how quickly the school year goes. In typical school years, September starts with a breath of optimism and excitement, and then in the blink of an eye, it is time to take a break for the holiday season.  

However, most teachers in Nova Scotia would agree that the stretch from September to December of this year has been exceptional.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult on many, and our school communities are no exception. The pandemic highlights pre-existing holes in many systems. As the education system demands more and more from teachers, those holes are quickly becoming chasms. 

One of the most telling symptoms of the crisis in our education system is the substitute teacher shortage currently affecting our province. Teachers are burning out faster than they can be replaced.

Teachers in Nova Scotia have been on the front lines fighting for better education for our kids for years. You may recall the dispute between teachers and the Liberal government in 2016-17, when teachers were campaigning for more supports to the system. Teachers rallied, spoke to our MLAs, advocated, and poured out our hearts to anyone who’d listen. We pleaded for more time to plan for our students, more human resources to support inclusion, and increased mental health support for children. We spoke about our lived experience — classes that were too large, needs that were too great, and too little time to support the diverse needs of our kids. 

The government of the day promised teachers that it was listening, and said improvements would come outside of the collective bargaining process. The Progressive Conservative party under Tim Houston, then in opposition, was quick to come to the teachers’ defence, indicating they’d address these education issues when they formed government. 

It’s time for these improvements to come. Teacher fatigue and stress are at an all-time high, due partly to the pandemic, but also to recent subtle and not-so-subtle decisions by educational authorities that have increased teacher workload.

In 2021, after many years of teachers advocating for more preparation time, high school teachers in HRM were assigned an additional class to teach. The resulting staffing shuffles mean that there are approximately 75 fewer teachers in our high schools — 75 fewer caring adults looking out for your child’s academic, social and mental health needs. The changes also mean that schools have virtually no teachers to do hallway/cafeteria supervision or work in student support capacities. This lack of supervision has led to more students out of class, increased vandalism and increased suspensions. 

Throughout the pandemic, politicians and educational authorities have said many kind words about teachers working in increasingly challenging circumstances. These words ring hollow, however, when they are coupled with actions that only add to teachers’ workload.

Of course, this also means more courses to prepare and more students to provide feedback to, with less time to do that planning/assessing. The result is less engaging lessons for your children, and less feedback to help guide their learning. Teachers have less capacity to provide extra help, leaving students to access private tutors (if they can afford them) or relying on online support (if they can access it). 

In junior high, teachers have been given a renewed curriculum with new courses to implement. While these curriculum changes may be positive, they could not come at a worse time. Asking teachers to learn a new curriculum in the middle of the pandemic when they should be focusing on meeting their students’ needs is simply not reasonable.   

At elementary, instead of spending their time focusing on reading instruction, teachers are being asked to spend too much time formally testing and reporting data on their students. Workload increases, yet preparation time has been reduced to a bare minimum, resources are limited, and additional meetings are required. Improving our students’ literacy is a worthy goal; however, asking teachers to continually assess their students without sufficient support is not a good use of time. It would be far more worthwhile for teachers to focus on teaching reading, instead of constantly administering standardized assessments.

Throughout the pandemic, politicians and educational authorities have said many kind words about teachers working in increasingly challenging circumstances. These words ring hollow, however, when they are coupled with actions that only add to teachers’ workload.

Teachers are running on empty. We are tired of decision-makers adding to our workload without ever removing anything. We are tired of not being able to meet our students’ needs due to a lack of time. We are tired of continually being asked to do more and more in a system that will not provide us what we need to support our students.

Nova Scotia’s children deserve a first-class education. Teachers love your kids and will continue to advocate for them, but we cannot support them as effectively as we could last year, or even four years ago. Our system is full of caring adults who wake up every morning to do right by our students. Let’s provide them with the time and resources needed to provide our kids the education they deserve.