New Brunswick

Province disputes mom's human rights challenge over lifting of school COVID rules

The New Brunswick government contends a human rights complaint filed by a Fredericton mother over the lifting of COVID-19 mask and isolation requirements in schools should be dismissed as being without merit.

Complaint by Fredericton woman Jessica Bleasdale'without merit,' New Brunswick government argues

Jessica Bleasdale, pictured with her husband Chad, centre, and their sons River, left, 12, and Rainn, 10, argued River is at too great a risk of contracting COVID-19 and complications without masking and isolation rules in schools. (Submitted by Jessica Bleasdale )

The New Brunswick government contends a human rights complaint filed by a Fredericton mother over the lifting of COVID-19 mask and isolation requirements in schools should be dismissed as being without merit.

Jessica Bleasdale filed the complaint with the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission last month on behalf of her son River, 12, who has neurodevelopmental and gastrointestinal disabilities.

She said the removal of mandatory masks puts him at greater risk of contracting COVID at school, and if he does get infected, he could be at risk of further complications and learning deficits.

Bleasdale argued the province's inclusive education policy stipulates accommodations should be made to ensure all children can participate in the classroom, and River cannot safely participate without the protection of universal masking and a policy requiring COVID-positive people to stay home.

No proof boy at risk, government says

But in a response filed with the commission Monday, a copy of which was sent to Bleasdale, the government denies discrimination toward River on the basis of mental or physical disability.

The respondents, Premier Blaine Higgs, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell and Education Minister Dominic Cardy, "submit that the complainant has failed to demonstrate how the neurodevelopmental and gastrointestinal disabilities, which River is alleged to suffer from, put him at risk of further complications and learning deficits in the event of contracting COVID-19," the three-page document, obtained by CBC News, states.

"There is no confirmed and/or scientific expert evidence supporting these allegations," the document, signed by Department of Justice lawyer Karine Arseneault, says.

Alternatively, if River is at higher risk, the lifting of the mask mandate is not discriminatory toward him, Arseneault argues.

Masks have not been required in New Brunswick schools since the province lifted all COVID-19 restrictions on March 14. (James Arthur Gekiere/Belga Mag/AFP/Getty Images)

The province's decision to lift all remaining COVID-19 mandatory measures, effective March 14, was "a policy decision based on recommendations by Public Health officials and applies to all New Brunswickers," she wrote.

It's important to note that although all restrictions were lifted, "the province encouraged people to continue using their own protective measures as they see fit, especially if they are at higher risk due to age, being immunocompromised and/or not being vaccinated,"  Arseneault says.

"People are encouraged to continue taking preventive measures, such as, for example, washing their hands regularly, wearing a mask, physical distancing, avoiding or limiting time spent in crowds, and minimizing close contact with others who have cold-like symptoms."

The respondents continue to monitor the situation and "will, if necessary, make decisions based on recommendations made by Public Health," she added.

Arseneault does not address the issue of mandatory isolation but writes that in the event the complaint is not dismissed, the respondents reserve the right to make additional representations and submit further information.

Opportunity for rebuttal

Bleasdale described the government's response as "curt" and "nonsense."

Her husband, Chad, is isolating after testing positive for COVID-19. He attended work safety training on Friday and was one of only "a few" in the room who wore a mask, she said. He's the sole income earner for the family of four.

If respondents don't want to settle, the complainant gets an opportunity for rebuttal before the file goes to commission registrar Megan Griffith to decide whether it should be closed or proceed to investigation.

Investigators have the power to conduct interviews and request documentation.

The goal is to complete investigations within one year, Griffith has said.

The investigator then makes a recommendation to commission members that the complaint be dismissed or continue to a board of inquiry, which is generally held within six months to a year, she has said.

The board of inquiry, done through the Labour and Employment Board, is the only entity that can say whether what happened to someone was discriminatory, and it can award damages.

Pediatricians urge return of masks in schools

Earlier this month, 19 New Brunswick pediatricians wrote an open letter to the government calling for the reinstatement of universal masking in schools and for preschool staff.

In their letter sent to Higgs, Russell, Shephard and Cardy, the doctors said COVID-19 is an airborne virus, and masking and vaccination are proven protections against transmission and severity of infection.

"Given the importance of school for child development and well-being, we strongly recommend returning to continuous mask use indoors for the rest of the academic year, so that students and staff can remain healthy and attend," the doctors wrote.

Last week, the New Brunswick Medical Society also said it "encourages" the reinstatement of mask mandates in schools and child-care settings.

It's a "simple measure that can help ensure children are able to remain healthy and attend classes," said president Dr. Mark MacMillan. It can also help slow the spread of the virus to vulnerable populations, as well as health-care and education professionals who are parents, he said.


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