'Schools need a circuit breaker': N.S. parents stressed over continued COVID-19 school exposures

There's continued concern among parents in Nova Scotia, with one elementary school closed and more exposure notifications due to COVID-19 announced Tuesday.

Parent Meaghan Speck was busy before work Tuesday morning helping her oldest son get started with his online learning.

Her other child, who has a heart condition and is immunocompromised, was also set up on his computer.

Once Speck and her husband go to work, her mother will take over helping the kids with their schooling.

Their school, Duc d'Anville Elementary, was shut down abruptly Friday due to COVID-19.

"My oldest was a close contact, twice," said Speck, "but the confusing part was that he wasn't allowed to go to a school as a close contact, but his youngest brother was."

But with his heart condition, she kept him home too. The whole family was tested.

Her son, 10-year-old Joseph Speck, has had multiple COVID-19 tests this school year.

"It's turning into almost like a routine nowadays," she said. "If I get another close contact, that will be like five COVID tests."

Just as he finished self-isolating, public health closed the school for the week. It's a measure Speck said should have been taken earlier, as she had already received eleven potential exposure notifications from the school by then.

"My child can't go to school anyway (because of self-isolation)," she said. "Close it down for a week so we can get back to the consistency."

On Tuesday, the province said eight schools had exposure notifications in the past four days,

The CSAP's Ecole Mer et Monde is among a number with more than half a dozen notifications. It's still open under enhanced precautions.

Parent Julie Lebouthillier has two children in the school. One child at home self-isolating as a close contact. Her youngest child attends pre-primary there.

She said because he has Down Syndrome, her five-year-old is more susceptible to the virus. So he's not taking the school bus or participating in after-school activities as a precaution.

"Because there's more exposures in schools lately and one of them was in his bus," said Lebouthillier, "we decided just to take a little break for him."

A volunteer parents group called Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education said it's still hearing plenty of concerns from caregivers.

NSPFPE representative Deborah McNamera said she spoke to one parent who has been off work for four weeks straight, because her children, who attend the French school, have all had to self-isolate back-to-back.

"Schools need circuit breakers so that this doesn't get out of hand," said McNamera.

She said families still need better information.

For one thing, she added, government isn't detailing just how many cases are linking to each exposure notification at a school.

"(And) we're not even sure what specifically applies as a direct contact. In elementary schools it seems to be the class, in other grades we are not certain."

The head of the Nova Scotia Teachers' Union agreed school communities need more transparency.

"Clearly there's an internal criteria and measuring stick that they're using to make these decisions," said Paul Wozney. "Just be transparent about what it is."

For its part, government said it's listening.

"There is always room for improvement in communication," says Nova Scotia Education Minister Becky Druhan. "So we are taking feedback and adapting and making improvements as we go."

Duc d'Anville Elementary School will remained closed this week. Meaghan Speck said all she knows is in-person learning is expected to resume October 18th if students test negative for the virus.

When asked how that will be determined or whether that applies to the entire student population and staff, Druhan said the details are still being finalized.