How Nova Scotia’s private schools are handling reopening in the pandemic

How Nova Scotia's private schools are handling reopening in the pandemic

Students entering the Halifax Grammar School last week may not have noticed the thermal imaging cameras as they walked inside the building, but that was exactly the point.

The cameras, pointed at the two entrances to the school, immediately let staff know if a student’s body temperature is running above average.

“What I didn’t want was the anxiety that would come with a [temperature] wand at your head every day,” said Steven Laffoley, headmaster of the Halifax Grammar School.

If someone appears red on the camera, they are sent for a secondary temperature check with a handheld wand and brought to the infirmary if they have a fever.

Steven Laffoley is the headmaster at Halifax Grammar School. (Halifax Grammar School)

This is just one of the ways that Nova Scotia’s private or independent schools are adding extra measures to protect against COVID-19, which includes air purifiers in each classroom, Plexiglas around desks and bringing students outside to learn.

“Parents are very concerned for safety, for sure,” said Nancy Wallace, founder of Bedford Academy.

These schools have also seen a surge in interest from parents, with the smaller class sizes being a big draw in the pandemic. Students are charged tuition to study at private schools. In Halifax, tuition starts at about $10,000 a year and rises to about $20,000. Many private schools offer bursaries, scholarships, and other ways to get the cost down. 

James Weekes, teaching head of school at the Booker School in Port Williams, N.S., said they are starting with 42 students this year, compared to 31 last year.

Each class cohort, which has no more than 10 students, has its own entrance and bathroom to use in the school. 

“We think having these small class sizes is so important. If they feel nervous or anxious about coming back to school, we’re able to talk about it in a safe and nurturing environment,” he said.

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The Booker School also staggered the drop-off times for students. That meant on the first day of school, the youngest children were welcomed inside first.

“It’s actually been really an awe-inspiring thing to watch these little ones coming into the school for the first time. Just walking in, a smile underneath their mask,” Weekes said.

Along with hand sanitizer and additional cleaning methods, Weekes said students are also asked to wipe down their desks and tables when they leave. But as often as they can, classes are being taken outside while the weather is still mild.

Grades 4 to 7 at The Booker School start working on their cycling skills as part of their physical education. The head of school says people in Port Williams, N.S., are used to seeing the kids out in the community on their bikes. (James Weekes)

Halifax Grammar School, which has 565 students this fall, has seen its registration go up 20 per cent in the last five years — and the pandemic hasn’t slowed that down.

“This year we certainly questioned whether we would see a drop or hesitation about returning to school, but to be frank the interest is very strong and that interest continues,” Laffoley said.

Along with the thermal cameras, Halifax Grammar has also “invested heavily in Plexiglas,” with a plastic barrier on student and teacher desks.

The school is also requiring that all students in grades 4 and up must wear their masks all the time while they are inside, even at their desks. The regulations for provincial schools allow students to remove masks in the classroom under certain circumstances.

“For us it’s about respect. It’s about respect for others, respect for self and respect for the seriousness of COVID,” Laffoley said.

Halifax Grammar School has put in Plexiglas for both students’ and teachers’ desks. (Halifax Grammar School)

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Sacred Heart School of Halifax has taken a different approach, choosing instead to focus on making sure each student is two metres apart from anyone else.

“Relationships are at the heart of our educational program and we wanted to have face-to-face teaching with the students in the classroom, and do that in a way when they don’t need to wear masks at their desks,” said Sister Anne Wachter, head of school.

Wachter said they have about 13 kids per classroom. The junior primary to Grade 9 students stay in their rooms while teachers carousel to them, while older students are in cohorts that move around the school.

“We had to limit enrollment in certain grades to fit the students into those classrooms,” she said.

Wallace said at Bedford Academy, they purchased air purifiers for every classroom.

But she said she is frustrated that the provincial government did not supply hand sanitizer or masks to students at private schools, as they did for the public schools.

“That’s a health issue. We’re not asking for pen and paper,” she said.

Along with paying for those additional supplies, Wachter said they are also on their own for funding when it comes to hiring more staff for things like cleaning and supervision duties, especially since break times are staggered.

“Those are challenges. It’s the resources,” Wachter said.

Students at Sacred Heart of Halifax are required to wear a mask when they cannot maintain six feet of physical distancing. (Sándor Fizli)

But Wachter also said there are some advantages, including connections with other independent schools around North America.

“We’ve had the benefit of the B.C. experience and learning directly from those heads about what happened when they tested out school last June,” she said. “That’s been invaluable for us.”

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The schools say that if someone were to have a confirmed case of COVID-19, the matter would be taken over by Nova Scotia Public Health.

But most independent schools have an isolation room for students feeling unwell, which has already been tested at Bedford Academy this year.

Wallace said a student was feeling ill and so was isolated, given a temperature check and sent home. The family called 811 and her COVID test came back negative.

Bedford Academy normally kicks off the school year with a welcome parade. But with no congregating allowed, they let kids pose by the school sign as parents drove by — and this Grade 1 student made the most of it. 0:07

Students the private schools are also asked to do a household screening for symptoms each morning.

“A certain level of that is trust,” Weekes said. “Just like the families have to trust us in providing a safe environment, we need to be able to trust our families to be doing the screening protocols.”

But so far, things have been going smoothly and the school heads are all thrilled to see the students back in the classroom.

“You do all this work and worry about what their anxiety will be like upon arrival, and how well they’ll adapt to the new processes,” Laffoley said.

“And invariably they always seem to rise to the occasion — and in this case, they’ve led the way.”

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