N.B. high schoolers returning to full-time in-person classes next month
Decision made as teachers expected to get vaccine before April 12
High school students in New Brunswick will return to classes full-time on April 12, ending an alternating-day system that has been in place since September to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Education Minister Dominic Cardy says there is enough vaccine expected in the province for high school teachers and staff to be vaccinated against the coronavirus in time for the return.
"We're seeing our case numbers continuing to be under control, and Public Health is confident we can have our high schools return to normal," Cardy said.
The minister, who was quick to restrict students from returning to school after March break last year if they'd travelled outside Canada in the early days of the pandemic, said he is cautious by nature but is confident this is the right move.
"When I hear from Public Health that they're confident that this is safe, I'm going to trust them, because that's put us in good stead so far throughout this pandemic."
Concerns over safety
Students themselves won't be vaccinated until June, but Cardy said if any school experiences a case of COVID-19, it will be shut down immediately and all students aged 16 or older will be vaccinated.
Fredericton parent Krista O'Reilly said on Twitter that her 17-year-old had already written "irate emails" to Cardy and other education officials opposing the decision.
"I was ambivalent but my kids are definitely not on board, and they have good points," she said. "With variants and no herd immunity, why rush into this with weeks to go in the school year?"
Cardy said he understood some parents may be nervous about the decision but he asked them "to look at the track record New Brunswick has had over the last year" in keeping COVID-19 under control.
Premier Blaine Higgs said transmission of the virus in schools has been driven by adults bringing it in.
"With the kids themselves, we haven't seen that transmission at all."
When high school students returned to class last September, they were split into two groups that attend in-person on alternating days to allow for more spacing in classrooms and hallways.
On the days they're not in class in person, they take part virtually.
Schools could still return to that blended model if a health zone has to go into the red phase of COVID-19 restrictions, Cardy said.
Some students eligible for early vaccination
To allow for all students to attend high school daily, masks will be required all day except when they are eating or playing sports. More space will be freed up for lunches and breaks, and new seating plans for school buses are on the way.
High school students who are 16 years old or older with complex medical conditions will be eligible for vaccination before April 12 along with teachers and staff.
All school teachers and staff were already due to be vaccinated in April and May as part of the COVID-19 vaccination plan released last week.
Cardy says the only change to that will be that high school teachers and staff will get their shot first from among that group. He says no other group will have to wait longer for their vaccination because there'll be plenty of vaccine.
New Brunswick Teachers' Association president Rick Cuming said in an email statement that the association was "encouraged" by the announcement.
"There are still many unanswered questions related to how this will impact school operations and activities," he said.
"The continued support of the public will be required as this next set of significant adjustments unfolds."
Opposition Liberal Leader Roger Melanson applauded the decision, saying the lack of full-time classes has been difficult for some students.
"It hasn't been easy from an educational point of view. It hasn't been easy from a mental health point of view," he said. "We had said that prior [and] we're supportive now."