New Brunswick

Parents, teachers worry as N.B. stands pat on schools free of COVID rules

With all restrictions gone since March 14, masks are becoming a rare sight in New Brunswick schools. While the other Atlantic provinces have maintained masks in classrooms, Dr. Jennifer Russell is not recommending the return of any safety measures here.

Dr. Jennifer Russell says New Brunswick will 'stay the course,' and mandatory school masking won't return

Kathleen Gadd, pictured here with her daughters Renée Martin, eight, behind, and Cameron Martin, six, on the first day of school in September, said being in a classroom all day is a lengthy exposure if someone is COVID-positive. (Submitted by Kathleen Gadd)

For Miramichi mother Kathleen Gadd, the return to school after March Break has been the most difficult time of the entire pandemic.

On March 14, all COVID-19 restrictions were lifted by the Blaine Higgs government, including mandatory masking, physical distancing and required isolation for those who are infected.

On the weekend before students headed back to the classroom after their one-week break, Gadd agonized about sending her daughters back to their elementary school, knowing no precautions would be in place.

"I felt like I was being pressured to send my kids into an unsafe environment," she said. "Without any acknowledgement of that from the people responsible for that environment. It was a really horrible feeling."

After weighing the risks of contracting COVID-19, and the benefits of being in school, Gadd and her husband decided their daughters would return to school on two conditions. First, that they would wear high quality, well-fitted masks at all times, and second that Gadd would pick them up for lunch so they could avoid that "very risky" time in the cafeteria.

Kathleen Gadd is only comfortable sending her daughters to school if they wear high-quality masks all day, and leave during the lunch break which is a high-risk time for the transmission of Covid 19. (Submitted by Kathleen Gadd)

Other Atlantic provinces keep masks in schools

Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador continue to require masking in schools, even though most other restrictions are being lifted.

In Nova Scotia, plans to eliminate rules around school masks were reversed just days before students returned to school after March break. The move came after a pediatric pandemic advisory group of doctors at the IWK recommended students continue to wear masks until at least mid-April.

In New Brunswick there is no sign that the government will change its policy, even after the weekly COVID-19 update on March 22 showed a 30 per cent increase in hospitalizations, 16 deaths and nearly 6,000 reported cases of the virus.

Dr. Jennifer Russell, the chief medical officer of health, told CBC News that people should still feel comfortable wearing masks in all different settings, even if there isn't a mandatory order.

When asked specifically about recommending a return to masks in schools, Russell said that's not her plan.

"At this time, Public Health did not make that recommendation here in New Brunswick and based on the numbers we're seeing right now we're planning to stay the course, but certainly we're going to monitor the situation really closely."

'Absolutely no mandatory safety measures'

Many teachers have also expressed concern about returning to the classroom according to the president of the New Brunswick Teachers Association.

Connie Keating said many are worried about the lack of masks, that cases are no longer reported to schools, and that there isn't a required isolation period for students who are positive for the virus.

Connie Keating, president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association, said many of her members are concerned about the elimination of all safety measures in schools. (Raechel Huizinga/CBC via Zoom)

"Our members now are working in schools and feeling like there's a lack of protection," she said. "They can wear a mask but they're in large classrooms and they may be immunocompromised [or] they may have family members who are."

Keating said it's just another example of the roller-coaster teachers and students have had to endure.

In their first eight weeks of 2022, students and teachers have gone from at-home learning during a lockdown in January, to a return to very strict COVID-19 rules, to no rules at all.

"What we came back to — with absolutely no mandatory safety measures in place — that is certainly out of sync with the routine of the last couple of years … and you know in schools, we thrive on routine."

No information available on absences

Since the return to classes after March Break, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said he is "unable to provide regular absenteeism data" that would be accurate and up-to date.

In an email, Flavio Nienow said there is no information available on the number of students or teachers who are absent because of illness, and that schools "report to Public Health regional offices should absenteeism related to influenza-like illness exceed 10 per cent."

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says schools are following the rules laid out by Public Health and any questions should be directed to the Department of Health rather than Education. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

On social media on Thursday, and when speaking with media on Wednesday, Education Minister Dominic Cardy said any questions about the policies in schools should be directed to Public Health.

"It's pretty simple," he tweeted. "Public Health laid out the rules. Nothing to be gained from my contribution, the plans were developed by [Public Health]."

Parents frustrated with lack of communication

Meanwhile, parents like Kathleen Gadd and other members of the group Protect our Province are worried about the spread of COVID-19 that's happening in schools and the impact it will have.

"I do not have strong enough words for my criticism of the communication that's taking place right now," she said. "For Higgs and for Dr. Russell, they should know better than this."

Gadd said to her it is clear that the removal of masks in classrooms will result in more transmission of the virus, more hospitalizations and more deaths.

"They know this, so they could act now or they might be waiting until more New Brunswickers die until they say, 'Oh, OK, I guess we got to bring them back.' But they don't have to wait."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for more than 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please email: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca

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