COVID-19/Back-to-School Update for 2 September 2020


Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, and Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Zach Churchill briefed reporters today (some in person, some on the phone) on the province’s plan to send students back to their classrooms on September 8.

Churchill began by recapping previously announced aspects of the plan, which was announced on August 14, like masking and the use of cohorts at the elementary and junior high levels. He stressed that the province is opening schools fully because our COVID-19 epidemiology allows for it and because “Public Health and pediatricians” have told them it’s “safe,” but that the plan is “flexible” and can be changed in response to changes in that epidemiology. Should it become necessary, the province can move “locally, regionally or across the board,” he said, to a blended or at-home model.

Zach Churchill, Nova Scotia's Minister for Education and Early Childhood Development, Back to school update, 2 September 2020.

Zach Churchill, Nova Scotia’s Minister for Education and Early Childhood Development, Back to school update, 2 September 2020.

Under the blended model, he said, it would be the older students (high school) who were educated at home.

Churchill said schools will teach a full curriculum, with modifications to activities like band and sports. Pre-primary is going ahead and there will be report cards and assessments “as per usual,” but students who have to self-isolate at home will not be penalized for missing class and “if they need computers they will get them.” (Churchill says the province has purchased 14,000 laptops and will use some of the money provided by the feds to buy additional equipment if necessary.)

Churchill also said that the province has learned a lot from its experience with online learning, that 1,000 teachers took online courses to improve their online teaching skills this summer and that there are 100 online classes available free of charge to teachers interested in taking them. He says teachers will have “high expectations for students working from home.”

(I am tempted to share some of the anecdotal evidence I’ve heard from teachers and parents and students alike about the success of the province’s initial experiment with online learning, but I’m sure everyone reading this their own stories. It’s also worth noting that students weren’t worried about assessments this spring.)

Churchill said there was concern prior to the reopening of the province’s licensed childcare facilities, but these have operated safely for two months now. Basically, he said, there’s been fear about each stage of the reopening process and so far, the epidemiology has not worsened.

He then turned the floor over to Dr. Strang who first ran through today’s COVID numbers — no new cases have been discovered, we have six active cases and NSHA’s labs  completed 961 NS COVID tests on September 1. In response to a reporter’s question, Strang confirmed that the higher test numbers reflect testing of university students. Strang also said that Public Health has decided the two “probable” cases announced earlier this week “could quite possibly be early cases” of COVID.

An aside: I had noticed that instead of referencing only the QEII microbiology lab, the provincial press releases have started referencing the NSHA’s labs. I asked the NSHA why this was and spokesperson Brendan Elliott explained:

Our main lab is at the QEII Health Sciences Centre. It’s by far the busiest lab in the province. The percentage of tests that would be done at the other facilities would be very low. Testing in these locations began in late April and was mostly used in urgent situations, for instance if an emergency surgery was needed at one of these locations, a COVID-19 test would need to be done first, and quickly.

Locations are:

  • Yarmouth Regional Hospital
  • Valley Regional Hospital
  • Colchester East Hants Health Centre
  • Aberdeen Hospital
  • Cape Breton Regional Hospital
  • IWK


Total new cases: 0

Total active: 6

Total cases: 1,085

Total hospitalized: 0

Total in ICU: 0

Total recovered: 1,014

Total deaths: 65

Total long-term-care facilities (LTCF) affected: 0

Total positive and negative tests to date: 78,020

Age range of patients: under 10 to over 90

Number of Epidemiologists in Dr. Strang’s department: 3



Strang spent the bulk of his time today going over how the province will respond to COVID outbreaks in schools which, for the record, he said were inevitable.

“I fully expect we will get cases of COVID-19 in a school,” he said, adding that this would not represent a “big failure” on the part of Public Health. “We have plans in place to manage it appropriately.”

He said the response to a case will depend on the answers to a number of key questions, namely:

  • Is this individual a student, staffer or essential visitor?
  • Does this involve a single case or more exposure?
  • Where did the individual likely get infected?
  • When would they have been contagious?
  • Were they in the school and if so, what were their activities? Were they on a school bus? Did they participate in before- or after-school programs?

Public Health will work to classify the individual’s contacts into three categories, high, moderate and low (and here I’m going to crib from the CNS press release that was issued just after the briefing began):

  • an individual is at high risk if they are a close contact. A close contact is someone who was in close and prolonged contact [during the briefing, Strang described this as a minimum of 15 minutes] with a confirmed case of COVID-19 up to 48 hours before symptoms presented. This could include everyone in the class.
  • an individual is at moderate risk if there has not been prolonged contact and they have maintained two metres or six feet from the confirmed case. This would include all students and staff in a shared space who were able to physically distance.
  • an individual is at low risk if they have had limited or casual contact with a confirmed case. This could be incidental contact such as walking past or near the individual in a hallway or other common area.

High risk individuals will be tested and required to self-isolate whether they test positive or negative.

I’ve asked for clarification of the protocols for moderate-risk and low-risk individuals and will update when I hear back from Public Health, it was a bit confusing. I can say that Strang said they would treat “moderate” risk “aggressively.”

Strang says a student who becomes unwell at school will be isolated and sent home ASAP, at which point it is the responsibility of family to follow up with 811 and have the student tested, if necessary. If the student tests negative, they can return to school when they have had no symptoms for 24 hours.

Children who are not well should not go to school.

Strang says schools will only be closed on the advice of Public Health and while they would be “much more likely” to close a classroom, they are prepared, if necessary, to close down a school.



Strang said some people who “feel” they are immunocompromised or that their child is immunocomprimised do not actually meet the definition of immunocompromised provided by the IWK pediatric advisory group.

He said while he understood immunocompromised students and teachers would have “more concerns about school this year,” there are “well-established” processes in place in NS schools.

As for those living with immunocompromised people, Strang reiterated the importance of following all public health measures to avoid transmitting the virus.

Reporters at COVID briefing with Dr. Robert Strang and Zach Churchill.

Reporters at COVID briefing with Dr. Robert Strang and Zach Churchill.


Strang advised parents to talk to their kids about what will be expected from them this fall. He said parents should help their children understand “that it is normal to be fearful” or “anxious” while giving them “tools to deal with that,” namely, how to wear a mask, wash their hands or physically distance.



During the briefing, the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union issued a press release that sparked a number of the questions put to Strang and Churchill. Here’s the release:

NSTU press release

Asked about the ventilation systems, Churchill said his regional executive directors have assured him the “vast majority” of inspections are done and that “maintenance is underway.”

Asked about the issue of safe drinking water and the status of a government database of lead in school water supplies, Churchill said the database would be available by “the end of this month,” and that “every single school” had access to potable water according to the Regional Centres for Education and the Department. He said when water quality problems are identified, an assessment is done to see if remediation is possible and bottled water is supplied to the school.

As for the question of physical distancing , the response from both Churchill and Strang was that physical distancing is one of a “package” of measures in the back-to-school plan, along with masking and enhanced cleaning. Churchill said to maintain a six-foot distance between students would require keeping 50% of them home which, he said, is exactly what will happen if a change in the epidemiology forces the province to go to a blended model — half the students will stay home.


Clean hands

Asked about sanitizing playground equipment, Strang said he felt people were focusing too much on objects, like equipment and books and pieces of paper, when they should be focusing on hands and that students need to wash them thoroughly as they enter the classroom.

He also took the time to note that students will be encouraged to be outside as much as possible, as the risk of transmitting COVID is much lower outside.



Asked if 811 was prepared to handle calls from “5,000 children with sniffles,” Strang said they will continue to review the list of symptoms for which a person should call 811 but that the key message is that if people feel unwell or develop new symptoms or worsening symptoms — not seasonal allergies or chronic headaches — they should call 811.



Asked whether non-teaching specialists, like speech pathologists, would continue to serve multiple schools, Churchill said they would be limited to a “family” of schools, although he did not say how many schools would constitute a family.


Private schools

Asked why the department of education was not implementing measures that have been introduced at private schools — like plexiglass and temperature checks — Strang said there was no evidence to suggest temperature screening is effective for detecting COVID and that there are no public health recommendations anywhere across the country calling for “plexiglass or thermometers.”

Churchill said that he wanted to reassure “everybody who is nervous” about the reopening plan that they’ve “put a lot of thought into it” and have leaned on the advice of experts and Public Health. He said managing a public system with 120,000 students and 10,000-plus staff is very different than managing “one private school.”


NDP response

The NDP issued a press release in response to today’s update calling for 10 paid sick days for all workers to allow them to “take leave from work to care for children who need a COVID-19 test.”

The Party also called for an “expedited testing strategy for students, teachers, and staff in P-12 schools.”

Asked about parents without sick days, Churchill said they were encouraging “families to work with their employers” and encouraging “employers to work with their families.”

(It reminds me of the premier’s advice that people “work” with their landlords — NS Cabinet members seem to have led rather charmed lives in terms of their relations to employers and landlords.)

And that’s all I’ve got for today. (I haven’t done this in weeks, can you tell?)