Back to the One-Room Schoolhouse?

As predicted, the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s long-awaited plan for getting students back to school in September has been met with push-back and “yeah-buts” from both opposition parties, the NSTU and CUPE Nova Scotia, who feel it is short on details about how, exactly, it’s all going to be implemented.

Zach Churchill and Dr. Robert Strang, 22 July 2020

Zach Churchill and Dr. Robert Strang, 22 July 2020

How, exactly, do you make sure the kids on the bus wear their masks properly? How, exactly, do you space desks one meter apart in already crowded classrooms, and then keep the students in them all day? (SPOILER ALERT: You don’t). How, exactly, do you handle the increased absences from staff staying home when they are feeling sick, in the face of an ongoing shortage of substitute teachers? Will the $4 million for computers and the $15 million already budgeted as part of the Inclusive Education Policy cover the additional expenses for staffing and supplies needed to implement this plan?

These are just the questions sparked by the government’s “Full-Opening” scenario for September, but Nova Scotia’s Back to School Plan includes to alternative scenarios — “Partial or Blended Response” and “At-Home Learning” — which would be deployed in the case of “increased spread of Covid-19 in a community or region.”

I would like to focus a bit on the shockingly vague, particularly with regard to K-8 students, “Partial or Blended Response.” To be honest, I don’t think the Department of Education has given this any deep thought at all and yet, this is surely the scenario most likely to be implemented once the fall flu and cold season rolls around, and with it, the very likely chance of some significant COVID-19 outbreaks.


Under the Blended Response, Secondary School students will return to remote learning, at home, with exceptions for students who need access to the physical building for hands-on courses, academic support, technology support or individualized programming.

K-8 classes, however, will still go ahead full-time. While pre-primary classes will be reduced to 15 students with two teachers, the K-8 classes have no guidelines for numbers. This is what the plan says:

Class sizes will be reduced by redistributing some students across school/schools. Cohorts of students will be created to support physical distancing. Schools may stagger schedules slightly to reduce the number of students in the hallways at a given time. Instructional spaces will also be reconfigured to support two-meter physical distancing. Teachers will be encouraged to hold classes outside when possible and when safe to do so.


Classroom in German elementary school prepared for reopening after COVID-19 shutdown.

Classroom in German elementary school prepared for reopening after COVID-19 shutdown; desks at least 1.5m apart. (Photo by Louis Bafrance / CC BY-SA 


Secondary school spaces may be used to provide additional space for the smaller cohorts of pre-primary–grade 8 students.

And that’s it. Nothing about the size of the cohorts. Nothing about who gets put in what cohort, and, importantly, nothing about who will actually teach and supervise them. Nothing about how cohorts would get to the high schools, if that’s where some of them would be going. Nothing about what would trigger a full return to home learning. And this is a problem. Because if we don’t sort out the logistics of the Blended Response, we won’t use it.

Don’t get me wrong – I believe full-time school is the right place for children in Nova Scotia in September. I’m excited about getting back into the classroom, and I’m already thinking about how I’m going to make it work. We’ll be spending lots of time outside — raincoats and rainboots will be de rigueur – and I’m sure I can get a grant for that. But I just feel that there’s a missed opportunity here for some truly creative thinking that might have alleviated some of the concerns about the coming school year and prevented us hopping back and forth between in-school and out-of-school learning.


Nova Scotia’s Back to School Plan places a heavy emphasis on keeping cohorts of students apart. It exhorts schools to “consider creative strategies to reduce class sizes and to minimize the mixing of students and staff between cohorts.”

So here’s my creative plan.

If we have to move to a “Blended-Opening” model, then why don’t we consider dividing children not by grade level but into multi-age cohorts based on families, neighbors and people already in close contact with one another? These groups could have children anywhere from the ages of 4 (pre-primary) to 14 (grade 8).

Each group would have at least two adults, one qualified Early Childhood Educator or Classroom Teacher, and one EA or, if needed, a specially hired “Learning Facilitator.” This could be a university student with experience running day camps, a tutor or even a recent high-school graduate.  Local parent volunteers would also be welcome.  The adults would be tasked with planning a school day which would be somewhat similar to a day in an old one-room schoolhouse.

There would be times when the children would work independently on their own grade-level work through Google Classroom (prepared by staff members at the Regional Centres for Education), times when they would work with similar-level buddies, and other times when the whole group would do art, phys-ed, music or discovery projects.  Some of the time, the older students would help the younger students.  And no-one would need to worry about physical distancing.

Portage School circa 1940

Portage School, circa 1940. Abbass Studios photograph. (Beaton Institute, Reference code: 512.2)

Each group would be completely independent, allowing for containment and contact-tracing in the case of a virus outbreak.  As well as using independent spaces in our schools, there is no reason why cohorts couldn’t be placed in the many unused facilities in our communities.  There are community halls, church basements, camps, theaters, shuttered hotels and businesses in abundance both in our urban and rural settings.  Many of these have been recent recipients of grants to bring them up to code and, in fact, many are more accessible than our public schools.  Students with special needs, along with their own EAs, would be placed in the site most suited to their own strengths and challenges.

Each cohort would have its own designated bus, and since children would be going to facilities closer to their homes, with their older siblings, there would be a greater chance for walking or cycling to school.

Perhaps between our Back to School in September and the first COVID-19 outbreak we could have time to figure this out. I know, looking at my own school catchment area, that we have enough spaces – two community centers, two fully-equipped camps, several church halls and even Ski Martock — to accommodate very small, local cohorts, which would be a good sight more fun than being in a two-meter, spaced-out spot in a classroom.

I also know that at the first COVID-19 outbreak many people — both parents and teachers — are going to feel anxiety, confusion and panic. If we don’t have a strong, robust Scenario-2 in place, we are going to end up just sending the students home with their new computers. And this will be tragic, for no amount of technology can replace the mental and physical benefits of being with a group of peers and a teacher in a place we call school.

Featured photos (clockwise from top left): Millville School, circa 1900, with students and teacher. (Beaton Institute, Reference code: 77-842-976); Portage School, circa 1940. Abbass Studios photograph. (Beaton Institute, Reference code: 512.2); School House, South Bay, Ingonish. (Clara Dennis Nova Scotia Archives accession 1981-541 no. 456CB); School house at Little Anse (Clara Dennis Nova Scotia Archives accession 1981-541 no. 433CB); Richmond County, School House at Janvrin Island, 20 pupils.

Kate Sircom


Kate Sircom is a school teacher and a resident of Lockhartville in Kings County, Nova Scotia.