Back-to-school plan: Parents’ reactions run the gamut

By Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
July 29 2020

GUYSBOROUGH – Local parents have more questions than answers when it comes to students returning to school in September. Last week the province announced its back-to-school plan for public school students. The plan would see a 100 per cent return to schools on Tuesday, September 8 and includes some of the expected public health precautions, such as frequent hand washing, but not others, specifically social distancing and the recently mandated requirement to wear non-medical masks in all public indoor spaces.

Reaction to the plan has varied widely. Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) President Paul Wozney issued a response to the plan, posted on the Act for Education webpage, on Wednesday stating, “These are unprecedented times. A year ago, nobody could anticipate that we’d be trying to restart in-person learning in the middle of a global pandemic. I appreciate that Minister Churchill and Dr. Strang have some extremely difficult decisions to make and the NSTU is committed to working with them to ensure students can safely return to school. But for the sake of all involved, this process must be more proactive and transparent than it’s been to this point.”

Not all teachers are as apprehensive about the current back to school plan as the NSTU president appears to be. A teacher who works for the Strait Regional Centre for Education told The Journal last week that they were “cautiously optimistic” about the plan.

“I feel that it is a good start…Wearing the masks on the school bus is expected and welcomed. During the day, when the children are in the classroom, they will be in their classroom bubble and it could be business as usual but we will have restrictions. Of course, not travelling hallways. We will have new routines and transitions; the youngest may have the easiest time as they didn’t know what to expect from the past,” they said, adding, “I expect the majority of students to wear a mask. And the rest that can’t or won’t will be protected.” 

Parents in the Municipality of the District of Guysborough have wide-ranging thoughts on the back to school plan. Eva MacRae’s three children attend Chedabucto Education Centre – grades six, seven and eight – in Guysborough. She told The Journal in an online interview, “If I’m being honest about the decision of sending children back to school during the COVID pandemic, I am terrified. I am fearful. I am anxious and the worst of all is the unknown. I understand our kids need to go back to school and how important education and routine is but I don’t think they are taking the correct steps towards opening school but unfortunately nobody knows what those steps are because this is something new this is something unexpected for everyone students teachers, bus drivers support staff janitors it is going to be a trial and error day every day all day.

“I have children with autism who I believe are going to struggle with following the ‘new normal’ …there is no plan for the ‘what if’s’. What if my son can’t physically/mentally wear the mask going on the school bus? What if because of this he cannot go on the school bus? What if I can’t get him to and from school every day (I’m an essential worker)? What if he has a really hard time social distancing after not seeing his friends for six months?  What if he cannot communicate correctly through the mask (when required to wear one),” MacRae asked, adding that she didn’t have the answers to these questions but thought there were other possibilities that hadn’t been explored for the resumption of public education.

“I think we are rushing this and there’s nothing I can do,” said MacRae.

Jennifer Roberts is also the mother of three boys. They attend Fanning Education Centre in Hazel Hill and are in grades primary, two and five. She’s more confident about the back-to-school plan. She told The Journal, “Of course I have concerns. I have them every year for different reasons. This year I have a few more than normal. One being that connection my children have with their teacher. My son who’s in Grade Five has already had this teacher, so they know each other very well. But my other two boys don’t know their teachers until that first day when they get off the bus. 

“I’m also very happy to live where I do and have my children go to a smaller school. It is a very different world we live in these days, and we need to take it one day at a time because it’s only July, September may look totally different. My main goal is to keep everyone safe. In September if my husband and I feel it’s safe for our children to attend school, they will,” said Roberts.

Kim Carter, whose children attend school in Guysborough, has a positive view of the back to school plan. “I know there are many mixed emotions, but I am content with the procedure. If this is the way it has to be for a while until we get through this then we need to all be supportive of the plan.

“I am a parent that struggled with the homeschool thing because I was still working every day. It was stressful,” said Carter. “I am confident that my children understand that it's important to protect themselves and social distance and be aware that our world is pretty different right now.”

Another parent in Guysborough, Jimmy Ryves, said his main concern surrounds the transportation of children on the school bus. “I'm very happy with the boards’ plan. Very lucky to be in Guysborough with small classes.  I wouldn't be so happy if the classes were big, 30-40 students, like some schools. I have every faith in the support staff.

“My concern is the school bus…It's not the social distancing, it's the fact that every bar and rail will be touched by numerous people. They are saying the bus will be cleaned twice daily. It needs to be wiped after every child,” said Ryves, who plans to transport his children to school in his private vehicle rather than have them take the school bus.

While transporting his children to school is an option for Ryves, it isn’t for other parents. Students travel from far and wide to attend school in Guysborough. Michelle MacKenzie lives in New Harbour and she plans to send her children to school on the bus. “I really do think the back-to-school plan is the best we can hope for. These are uncertain times and I think that as long as we navigate this carefully, we can get through with minimal damage done.

“I for one will be sending my kids to school in the fall and considering what they go through to get there in the first place, (that) is a feat in itself. Travelling 45-50 minutes to school in Guysborough from New Harbour on a bus at age six and eight isn't optimal but it’s the only choice we have living in rural Nova Scotia. I think with diligence we can use this situation to our advantage and teach our children perseverance. When things start to get scary again, I really believe the government will do what is necessary to protect our kids. And if not, we have the option to do it ourselves,” she said in an online interview.

Katie Pellerin has three children that attend school in Guysborough and she will not be sending them on the bus. She also said she’s not certain if she will send her children to school at all if another wave of COVID-19 hits before September.

Pellerin told The Journal in an online interview, “After reading the plan presented by the Minister of Education and watching an interview with questions from fellow parents, I do have quite a few concerns. Some scenarios have not been directly addressed that really matter to parents. What happens when one of my children is sick? Do all my children need to be pulled from school for two weeks and our entire family isolated until we test negative?

“Also, I feel like the level of sanitation that is required (rightfully) throughout the day will take up a lot of the students’ and teachers’ time. Proper hand washing alone for each child will be very time consuming with such large class sizes. Will it be worth it to send them to school for a couple hours of learning and a lot of cleaning and social distancing?” asked Pellerin. At this time, the answers are unclear.

Pellerin also has questions about what would happen to families “who aren't feeling comfortable with sending their children back to school yet, but who are also not capable of providing homeschooling for their children. This question seems to be brushed over when asked and I feel like it is a major concern to a lot of parents.”

The Journal asked the Department of Education what would happen if parents didn’t feel safe sending their children to school and was given the following answer in an email: “We are taking our direction from Public Health, and advice from pediatricians and psychologists at the IWK. The best place for children is in the classroom, for their emotional, mental, social, and physical development. For parents who feel the best place for their children is to learn from home they have the option to register for home schooling.”

Public Health regulations change on a frequent basis as new information becomes available. While there is no public consensus on the back-to-school plan, either for or against, what is most certain is that change and adaptation will be the watchwords of the new school year.