Reinstate COVID-19 measures in schools, pending review, watchdog tells N.B. government
Child and youth advocate Kelly Lamrock makes 8 recommendations after inquiry launched in late March
New Brunswick should temporarily reinstate COVID-19 measures in schools, including mandatory masks, until it can review its decision to lift them, the province's child and youth advocate recommends in a report released Friday.
The decision process itself was "flawed" and should be revisited, said Kelly Lamrock, stopping short of making a recommendation on the measures themselves.
"We do not believe that, in an expedited three-week review, the advocate could or should take on the role of being the final arbiter of public health records," he wrote.
"What we can say is that children deserve a decision which explicitly considers their rights and needs, reports on each of those with clear and relevant factual findings by the right experts, and is communicated with clarity and accountability by someone who is answerable for the results."
Lamrock recommends the government revert to COVID mandates in schools until May 21, see if it reduces case counts, and then work quickly to make a final decision that is "properly balanced, researched, communicated and implemented."
WATCH | Kelly Lamrock says public health has the tools to 'go back and do this right'
COVID-19 mandates in schools were removed on March 14, the day students and teachers returned to classes after March break. All provincial COVID-19 restrictions were lifted the same day, with the end of the emergency order.
Lamrock launched an inquiry in late March after "a number" of citizens expressed concerns about the spread of COVID in schools.
In a scathing 23-page report filed Friday with the legislative assembly, he says "decision makers were each stating the other office was free to revise or change the decision," but neither Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell nor the Department of Education explained the evidence behind it.
"This public sense of vagueness and confusion was not in best interest of the children."
Lamrock also took aim at the government's "overreliance" on following other provinces, the "mismatch" between its advice that vaccines are more effective than masks and the "factual evidence" that fewer than half of children attending schools are vaccinated, and the lack of measurements to monitor the impact of removing restrictions.
"There are legitimate reasons to consider lifting mask mandates," he said. But Public Health should revisit the decision with clear evidence of the factors to be weighed and a plan to monitor student safety and staff absenteeism.
Lamrock, a lawyer and former education minister, also advised the Department of Education is obligated to accommodate students adversely affected by the relaxing of COVID-19 rules and should direct school districts to do so.
"The law is clear that a student with a need that cannot be accommodated in the common learning environment has to be provided with a safe place to learn," he said.
The Education Act, which requires students with exceptional needs to be accommodated, includes the obligation to "provide for students whose immediate family members may be at risk of serious complications from the virus," according to the report.
Among the other eight recommendations "aimed at improving the safety and quality" of the school environment for children.:
- Public Health, in consultation with the Department of Education, should clarify the health and learning indicators it is tracking to judge the impact of the removal of the mask mandate and elaborate clearly on what benchmarks would lead to a review of the decision.
- The departments of Health and Education should co-ordinate and issue clear protocols for school leaders regarding when a student must test, report or not attend school because of exposure, symptoms or a positive test.
- Public Health should factor into its recommendations the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on youth.
- Public Health and Education should develop a strategy, "backed up with regulation, if necessary," to increase the low vaccination rate of children aged five to 11
- Departments of Health and Education should co-ordinate and issue a plan to make appropriate rapid tests available to schools
The government is not required to implement the recommendations.
CBC requested a comment from Premier Blaine Higgs's office but was directed instead to a news conference held by Education Minister Dominic Cardy.
The Department of Health initially also redirected requests for comment to Cardy's news conference.
Education defers to Public Health
Cardy told reporters he will continue to defer to Public Health.
"I am not going to be the minister who makes decisions based on media pressure, public pressure or random voices from the internet," he said.
"I'm going to follow the advice from the Public Health team whose job it is to advise government on areas and concerns around public health."
He was outspoken on COVID in schools at the beginning of the pandemic, he said, but Public Health's expertise "vastly outweighs" his.
Pressed further about his personal opinion, Cardy insisted he wasn't "trying to dodge" the question.
"As a minister, you lose the ability to be able to just express your own feelings on things related to your file and to provincial government work," he said. "I've certainly gotten in trouble for stretching that a couple of times, but the goal is to try and have governments that speak with one voice."
He is a member of cabinet, cabinet makes decisions by consensus, and the decision was to adopt the recommendations from Public Health, he said.
Cardy added that cabinet was presented with evidence that supported Public Health's recommendations, but he declined to comment further, citing cabinet confidence.
In his report, Lamrock said the chief medical officer of health is best suited to determine the risks and impacts of adopting various public health rules. The Department of Education is best suited to determine the impacts of these restrictions on student learning and development.
"Once the impacts are known but must be balanced against each other, the decision is as much one of values as science, and that is where elected officials should make the call and answer to the public."
Will take recommendations 'into consideration'
A subsequent joint written statement issued on behalf of Cardy and Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said their departments will "take into consideration" any recommendations from Lamrock, as well as the auditor general in a pending requested report on the province's response to the pandemic.
Both departments will continue to work with schools and districts to "ensure respectful and supportive learning environments for students and staff where they feel welcome to wear masks," it said.
The province's overall high vaccination rate for those most likely to be hospitalized, along with low hospitalization rates among youth, contributed to Public Health's decision to remove mask mandates for the public, and in schools, it added.
Later in the day, the Department of Health issued a written statement on behalf of Dr. Yves Léger, the acting chief medical officer of health.
Public Health and the Department of Education will be reviewing Lamrock's recommendations and would like to thank him for his report, Léger said.
The departments of Health and Education will "continue to work together to maintain and nurture the health of New Brunswick's children."
Could upgrade to systemic investigation
This is Lamrock's first report as the independent watchdog. The former Liberal cabinet minister, who quit the party to run for the NDP and later became an informal adviser to Higgs, was appointed to the position by the government in December.
He does not plan to open a full investigation into the removal of COVID rules in schools for several reasons, he said, including being short-staffed and that it's unlikely he could make a recommendation before the end of the school year. "Most importantly," he believes his concerns with the process and "completeness" of the decision can be addressed through follow-up recommendations.
He will use his discretion under the Child & Youth Advocate Act, however, to place the matter under "ongoing review" and monitor his recommendations.
"We retain the jurisdiction to upgrade the matter to a systemic investigation if facts change or recommendations we see as essential are ignored," he advised.
While masking does provide a layer of protection and Public Health supports their use, there is not evidence at this time that it needs to be made mandatory.- Premier Blaine Higgs
Earlier this week, when asked about Lamrock's review, the premier said the government would continue to follow Public Health's advice, as it has throughout the pandemic.
"While masking does provide a layer of protection and Public Health supports their use, there is not evidence at this time that it needs to be made mandatory where people would be fined or unable to attend school for not wearing one," Higgs said in an emailed statement.
"Learning to live with COVID-19 means empowering ourselves and each other to protect one another against infection."
At least 40 of 54 active pediatricians in the province have called for the reinstatement of mandatory universal masking in schools for the rest of the academic year.
Moncton Centre Liberal MLA Robert McKee has also called on the government to reimpose mandatory masking for students and staff until at least the end of April, based on staffing challenges at schools around his riding and a petition signed by 1,400 people.
The three other Atlantic provinces have all extended their mask mandates.
With the end of New Brunswick's mandatory order, Public Health guidance "changed from people must wear a mask, in which they could face penalties such as a fine, to it becoming a personal choice based on their personal level of risk," said Higgs.
This was based on the province having a "high level" of vaccination, he said.
"Public Health could no longer justify recommending people be fined for not wearing a mask. This Public Health guidance also carried to schools."
Decline in under-19 cases
Since then, Public Health has followed cases and risks to "determine if changes are required," said Higgs.
"Looking at data of cases in those under 19 years of age, cases peaked in February when masking was still mandatory. There was an increase in cases when the mandatory order ended, as was expected, and COVID cases in that age group have been on a decline since."
In March, parents were advised they no longer needed to inform their child's school if they test positive for COVID-19 and school district COVID dashboards are no longer being updated.
"We know there are still absences in schools due to COVID but there are also absences in schools due to influenza, a Norwalk virus that has been circulating and other reasons," said Higgs.
Meanwhile, other jurisdictions, including neighbouring provinces that have kept mandatory masking in schools, continue to see COVID cases at "a similar rate" to New Brunswick, he said.
Vaccination continues to be the best tool of defence against COVID, Higgs added, noting that the province encourages everyone to get vaccinated and to get a booster dose as soon as they are eligible.