Halifax Examiner Article “Leadership Matters”


How a lack of good leadership in Nova Scotia’s education sector is undermining implementation of public health recommendations – Janice Brown

Screen Shot of NS Public Health Guidance taken directly from their website HERE

Original article published September 27th, 2022 in the Halifax Examiner

It may come as a shock to some students, teachers, and parents to learn that Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang, strongly recommended masks be worn in school whenever possible this fall. But he did. 

I know he did because I watched his last press conference before schools reopened, and read the advice posted on Nova Scotia’s Public Health website.

Why is that? Why doesn’t everyone know what Strang and his colleagues have recommended?

To my mind, a big part of the problem is lack of good leadership on the part of Premier Tim Houston, Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development Becky Druhan, and other leaders in the education system itself. 

To the dismay of many, Houston hasn’t acknowledged the existence of the pandemic, let alone offered condolences to families of the 522 Nova Scotians who have been lost to COVID, for many months now. 

In fact, Houston’s last tweet on either topic is dated June 27, when the province announced vaccine boosters would be made available to those 50+ years of age — despite the fact Nova Scotia had some of the highest rates of infection, hospitalization, and death in the country this past summer, and nearly 80% of all COVID deaths in this province have occurred since he took office. 

Given Houston’s stated unwillingness to be a “COVID premier,” his failure to amplify Strang’s recommendations on a regular basis has significantly undermined their implementation. 

Education Minister Becky Druhan adopted a similar strategy. You have to go back to early July to find any reference to COVID on Druhan’s Facebook or Twitter feeds, despite the fact Nova Scotia’s Education Act makes her legally responsible to ensure kids’ classrooms are safe. She too has done nothing to ensure educators and students heed Strang’s warning and recommendation to mask up.  

And what about leaders in the system itself? 

Based on the number of disturbing stories I’ve heard from family and friends over the past week, it appears too many teachers, principals, and administrators aren’t just ignoring Strang’s advice, they’re actively pressuring students and parents to do the same. 

Some teachers report they’ve even been discouraged from explaining to students why masks are still recommended. This is especially disappointing since educational leaders have the same duty as Druhan to keep kids safe. 

Finally, what about the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union? Surely, it understands that Strang’s recommendation means its members face “unsafe working conditions” when the majority of teachers and students attend school maskless. Unfortunately, aside from very recently raising questions about the sufficiency of school ventilation, it appears the NSTU has done little, at least, publicly, to advocate for the health and safety of its members or encourage them to take the precautions necessary to reduce transmission and protect themselves, their families, and their communities. 

In the past, parents and community members might have been able to bring concerns about such failures of leadership to their elected school board representatives, but school boards were disbanded by the previous government and Houston has taken no steps to re-establish them since taking office, despite promising to do so during the last election campaign. Currently, Regional Centres for Education are headed by civil servants who have little choice but to toe the Conservative party line. 

Some still argue COVID poses less risk to kids and that, therefore, mitigation measures like masking aren’t needed. But that’s not Strang’s view. And it’s not the view of experts around the world who are increasingly raising alarms about the real and substantial danger the virus poses to kids’ health in the short and long term. 

For example, a recent study found that between 5 and 10% of children diagnosed with COVID continued to have symptoms 90 days after infection. Earlier studies suggested a COVID infection significantly increased children’s risk of developing lifelong conditions, such as diabetes, cognitive impairment, and vascular issues.  

Even if one accepts the notion that “most” kids will be okay despite being repeatedly infected, what about those we know are vulnerable? The failure of political and education leaders to support masking and other mitigation measures means those kids face real barriers to education. 

There’s nothing “inclusive” about forcing students and their families to choose between kids attending school versus staying alive and healthy. Schools have a legal duty to accommodate persons with disabilities to the point of “undue hardship” but the Houston government has refused to direct them to implement even the least costly and intrusive measures (such as mandatory masking and air filters in classrooms) in order to fulfil that duty. 

And what about vulnerable family members whose health is more at risk now that most mandatory mitigation measures have been dropped?

Such utter failures of leadership are deeply disturbing — more so because there seems so little we can do about them. There are no school boards to which parents and others can take their concerns. Houston has made it clear he doesn’t much care what the public thinks of his handling of the pandemic. The vast majority of letters, emails and telephone calls to his office go unacknowledged and unanswered. 

The same is true of Druhan. And the directors of Nova Scotia’s Regional Centres of Education simply repeat the line that they’re “following the advice of Public Health,” which is demonstrably false given they’re ignoring (some might say actively contradicting) its most important advice.

So what would good leadership in education look like? 

To begin, it would be based on sound science, good data and Strang’s advice. It would reflect a strong focus on keeping kids and teachers safe. It would encourage students to exercise personal responsibility to care for other people as well as themselves, and consider how their actions might affect their classmates, teachers, families, and communities. It would model responsible behaviour, inspire good citizenship, and applaud the courage and leadership of students and teachers who choose to do what’s necessary to limit infections — even in the face of mounting social pressure to act as if the pandemic is over. 

Good leadership would consist of Houston, Druhan, principals, teachers, educational assistants, and administrators consistently wearing N95 masks indoors and encouraging students to do the same. 

Good leadership would ensure students aren’t required to remove their masks in order to participate in mandatory school activities. It would require schools to test air quality in classrooms regularly and improve ventilation as needed. It would encourage and support students and teachers eating lunch outdoors or in well-ventilated spaces. 

Good leadership would revise the curriculum to ensure all students understand the dangers posed by communicable diseases and the important role vaccines and other mitigations play in limiting their harmful impacts on individuals and communities. 

Most importantly, good leadership would encourage students to show empathy towards others, and inspire them to do what they can to help limit transmission. 

We truly are all in this together. It’s time Houston, Druhan, and leaders in our education sector began acting like it — by demonstrating personal responsibility and good leadership, and by supporting and encouraging students and their families to do the same. 

Janice Brown is a retired lawyer who worked as a solicitor, senior policy analyst, and cabinet adviser with the Nova Scotia government. She is also a member of the COVID action group PoPNS (Protect our Province NS). You can follow her on Twitter @PoP_NovaScotia

The original article found in the Halifax Examiner can be found HERE

The Nova Scotia Pediatric Pandemic Advisory Group Letter:

An Open Letter to Nova Scotia Parents and Students, September 6th, 2022.

“As we prepare to return to school this fall, we know that questions about how best to protect students, teachers, and families/caregivers are being asked. Schools, like hospitals, provide an essential service. Students and educational staff need to be healthy and able to attend so that all can benefit.

During the past 2 ½ years, we have learned a lot about what works to decrease respiratory illnesses including COVID-19, influenza and the common cold. We need to use what we have learned and work together as we begin another school year to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses.

Masking, vaccination and hand washing have been cornerstones of the pandemic response and have proven effective in reducing transmission of infections. While it is reasonable to relax some of the recommendations that were crucial during earlier waves of COVID-19, masks, vaccines and good hand washing remain our best tools to fight the spread of infection.

Masks: Masks do reduce transmission of COVID and other respiratory viruses. We recommend wearing masks in the school setting when students or teachers:

  • are mildly unwell (i.e. runny nose), but still able to attend school.
  • are in close contact with someone who has respiratory symptoms who can’t wear a mask.
  • are worried about potentially bringing home respiratory viruses to family members or loved ones who are at higher risk of becoming severely ill.
  • feel more comfortable wearing a mask for any reason.

What else can help?

  • Make sure you and your family receive all recommended COVID-19, influenza and other vaccinations.
  • Stay home from school/work if you are sick and/or experiencing cold or flu-like symptoms, including fever, vomiting or diarrhea, or new cough.
  • Use good hand washing practices, including after returning home from being out in public, before eating, and after toileting.

Finally, it is important to ensure that students are not bullied about whether they do or do not wear a mask. Discuss this with your children. Be kind to one another, and tough on viruses.

Nova Scotia Pediatric Pandemic Advisory Group:

Dr. Alexa Bagnell (IWK Chief of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry)

Dr. Tara Chobotuk (IWK Pediatric Emergency Medicine and Chief of Community Pediatrics- Central Zone)

Dr. Jeannette Comeau (IWK Pediatric Infectious Diseases Specialist and Medical Director, Infection Prevention & Control)

Dr. Joanna Holland (IWK General Pediatrics & Hospital Medicine)

Dr. Katharine Kellock (Community Pediatrician- Sydney)

Dr. Mike Nash (Chief of Pediatrics- Valley Regional Hospital, Kentville)

Dr. Sarah Shea (IWK Developmental Pediatrics)

Dr. Andrew Lynk (IWK Chief of Pediatrics)”

Covid-19 Update – September 20th, 2022

Data from Covid-19 Resources Canada can be found HERE.

Nova Scotia continues to lead the Country in Hazard Index.

Total infections have decreased a bit, but remain much higher than reports from PCR data from NS Gov (see below). Many of these infections could be prevented by improving vaccine access for those who want them, as waning immunity is an considerable issue considering about 1/2 the population has received at least one booster. Masking continues to be one of the most protective measures and could be preventing countless unnecessary deaths and disability. The Chief Public Health Officer recommends the use of N95 masks where possible. Indoor air quality improvements would provide significant protections and be a real move towards our “New Normal” that steers clear of more politicalized protections and it is widely supported.

Infection rate per capita have decreased, but still remain above the Canadian Average,
Nova Scotia is behind death reporting by almost a year, so this data represents pre-omicron variants. We know there are a large number of excess deaths not attributed to Covid-19 that coincide with known waves, especially in younger age groups. Some of the largest peaks of excess deaths represents people under the age of 44. This is highly concerning since we know Omicron has not been “more mild” and that we have seen more deaths and complications in 2022, compared to 2021 and 2020. This increase in known Covid-19 deaths may suggest we should expect an increase in excess deaths when that data is eventually reported.
At present, about 2.5% of the population is experience infection or Long Covid symptoms limiting activities of daily life. Considering that frontline and healthcare workers are at high risk of repeated exposure and infection, that percentage is likely higher for those groups. Community public health protections help to lower those numbers so we have more workers, better healthcare services, and can actually strengthening the economy without wasting tax dollars on preventable infection and disability that keep people from work.
Omicron kills about 10 times more people than the Flu in Nova Scotia and is the 3rd leading cause of death. It is coming closer to Heart Disease, the second leading cause of death. This trend has also been noted in other countries.
This would be a good time to look at getting a booster for Covid-19 for those interested. Further information about booking Vaccines in NS can be found HERE.

Infection Prevention and Control Considerations for Schools

Briefs of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.

“In-person schooling is essential for children and youth for both academic educational attainment and for the development of social, emotional growth and life skills. Schools are a place where children gain essential academic skills, form friendships, learn social and life skills, and are key settings for physical activity. Schools provide critical services that help to mitigate health disparities, including school nutrition programs, public health services (immunizations, dental screening), health care services (speech and language therapy, occupational therapy), social services and mental health supports. Schools should therefore remain open for in-person learning.

Optimizing the health and safety of children and staff in schools requires that certain health and safety measures be in place, irrespective of the COVID-19 pandemic. These “permanent” measures include achieving and maintaining adequate indoor air quality, environmental cleaning and disinfection, hand hygiene, students and staff staying home when sick and up-to-date routine and recommended immunizations for students and staff. 

Temporary infection-related health and safety measures (e.g., masking, physical distancing, cohorting, active screening, testing) can help reduce the transmission of communicable illnesses in schools. However, some can pose additional challenges to school operations, student learning and student wellness. Furthermore, some of these measures may adversely impact social connectedness, which is of vital importance for children of all ages and of heightened significance in the adolescent years. Therefore, a thoughtful approach based on real-time local level analysis is recommended before reintroducing these temporary measures after careful consideration of the potential benefits and negative consequences. Given that schools are not isolated from communities, implementation of these temporary measures should not be done in isolation of community measures for indoor spaces. These temporary measures are not expected to be required at the start of the 2022 school year.”