New Brunswick

Fredericton mother files human rights complaint over lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in schools

A Fredericton mother has filed a complaint with the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission on behalf of her 12-year-old son with disabilities over the province's decision to lift COVID-19 mask and isolation requirements in schools.

Jessica Bleasdale calls for return of masking, isolation on behalf of 12-year-old son with disabilities

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

A Fredericton mother has filed a complaint with the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission on behalf of her 12-year-old son with disabilities over the province's decision to lift COVID-19 mask and isolation requirements in schools.

Jessica Bleasdale says New Brunswick has an inclusive education policy, which stipulates accommodations should be made to ensure all children can participate in the classroom.

She contends River, who has a neurodevelopmental disability, cannot safely participate without the protection of universal masking and a policy requiring COVID-positive people to stay home.

He has to work in close proximity to his aides and has other conditions that could put him at risk of further complications and learning deficits if he contracts the virus, Bleasdale said.

She pointed to a new study by an international team of researchers that found one in four children with COVID-19 develop long COVID, including cognitive symptoms, such as impaired concentration, learning difficulties, confusion and memory loss. The study, which has not been peer-reviewed, looked at the status of more than 80,000 children with COVID-19 on four continents. 

Mother doesn't want to take risk

"My son already doesn't get the health care and education supports that he needs," Bleasdale said.

"To place him in an environment where he could contract COVID because kids are attending school with COVID and not wearing masks, that puts my son at too high of a risk."

It's a risk Bleasdale is not willing to take.

"So I am asking the education minister to uphold the inclusion policy, for which New Brunswick is internationally recognized, and ensure that universal masking takes place so a child like mine — and every other child with disabilities in New Brunswick — is supported and protected in the classroom."

She noted politicians in the legislature are still protected by mask rules, and she questioned why children are not being provided the same protections, particularly the most vulnerable ones.

How about we keep the easy, effective, proven, scientifically supported, medical expert-supported universal masking to protect children's mental wellness and physical well-being?- Jessica Bleasdale, complainant

Bleasdale filed her complaint Wednesday against Premier Blaine Higgs, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell and Education Minister Dominic Cardy.

Earlier this month she filed a complaint against Russell with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick, arguing the province's top doctor has provided no medical evidence or scientific data to support her recommendation to lift mandatory masking, particularly in schools. Bleasdale alleges the decision will cause the "reckless endangerment" of children and people with disabilities, among others.

The Premier's Office and Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment.

The Department of Education has not received formal notification of a complaint from the Human Rights Commission, said spokesperson Flavio Nienow. "As such, it would be inappropriate to comment," he said in an emailed statement.

New Brunswick Human Rights Commission registrar Megan Griffith said she could not comment on any specific complaint, citing confidentiality.

Could take at least 11 months

Bleasdale, who has kept River home from school since restrictions were lifted Monday, said she was told by the commission it will likely take three months before her file gets assigned to somebody and at least 11 months before there's any resolution.

"So that was quite disheartening because this is an urgent matter," she said. "My kid needs to be able to go to school now, not 11 months from now, in a safe environment that accommodates his disabilities."

Griffith confirmed it can take up to three months.

"Our average wait time right now is about two months. However, because complaints are triaged, if it's what we consider an active incident, then … it would likely be triaged higher and can be assigned, you know, within a week," she said.

The next step is to review a complaint to determine whether it falls under the commission's jurisdiction.

"Do we have the ability to accept this based on [the New Brunswick Human Rights Act]? And have they established what we call prima facie discrimination, which is essentially, do they have a protected ground? Did they suffer an adverse impact because of that protected ground? And can we clearly see a link where it's likely or possible that that protected ground was a factor in the adverse impact?"

The act covers 16 grounds, such as physical or mental disability, race, colour, ancestry, and family status.

If a complaint passes that initial test and the form is complete, it proceeds to the next stage — notification of the respondent, said Griffith.

Mediation can expedite process

They usually have two weeks to respond. They can indicate if they're interested in mediation, and if both parties are interested, "it's a process that we strongly recommend," she said.

It expedites a settlement, usually taking less than six weeks. Neither party admits wrongdoing and the terms of the settlement cannot be disclosed.

If the respondent doesn't want to settle, the complainant gets an opportunity for rebuttal before the file goes to Griffith's office 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, said Griffith. "That happens in some cases, but not all."

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 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, said Griffith.

Not up to principal or superintendent

Bleasdale said she still hopes something can be worked out.

She understood the principal had planned to maintain masking after provincial restrictions were lifted on March 14.

But in an email, Anglophone West School District superintendent David McTimoney told her he advised all principals in the district it would be "important to welcome and respect the choices of all.

Bleasdale argues the lifting of masking in schools has left her and her husband to make the 'impossible choice' between the health and safety of their son and the necessary support services and personalized learning plans he receives at school. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

"If some decide they wish to wear a mask, then it must be welcome and respected. The same goes for those who choose not to wear a mask … as of March 14, it will be their choice," he wrote.

"It is not my decision to make when it comes to the mask mandate. This is a provincial decision that will be implemented across the province (with some exceptions) and includes the school system."

Impact on mental health

Bleasdale has been home schooling River this week, but said that's not an option long-term.

"My child needs to be in school. His mental health is being impacted this week. He misses his peers. He doesn't understand why he can't be kept safe at school. I haven't seen this level of anxiety from him before.

"Our chief medical officer of health keeps talking about children's mental wellness. How about we protect them in school?

"How about we keep the easy, effective, proven, scientifically supported, medical expert-supported universal masking to protect children's mental wellness and physical well-being?"

In an about-face Friday, Nova Scotia announced it will keep mandatory mask rules in schools until mid-April. Masking was set to be dropped Monday, when students return from March Break. But Premier Tim Houston said it was clear continued masking was the best decision, referencing a pediatric advisory group's recent recommendation.

Bleasdale pointed out some private New Brunswick schools, such as Rothesay Netherwood School, have maintained masking.

RNS spokesperson Heather MacLean confirmed masking indoors remained in place this week, along with other COVID measures. These include physical distancing, self-isolation after a positive rapid test until symptom-free, capacity limitations, and hand hygiene.

The only change announced by head of school Paul McLellan, she said, was the option to remove masks outdoors.

Paul McLellan, head of school at Rothesay Netherwood School, sent a message to families before March Break, advising them COVID-19 protocols, including masking indoors, would remain in place, despite the provincial restrictions being lifted. (Submitted by RNS)

Starting Monday, students and employees will continue to be masked indoors, except when seated in class and physical distancing can be maintained. 

Lunch break remains at half-capacity and masked, and masking protocols remain in place at the campus fitness centre, she said. Meanwhile, the morning chapel service, which has been virtual, will return to half capacity with masks.

Students and staff who feel unwell are advised to stay home until their symptoms improve.

"We intend to introduce changes to our community gradually," MacLean said in an email. "Health and safety remain our top priority, and as such, we are taking a cautious, phased approach to ensure the continuity of our academic year."

Absenteeism rates not released

The Department of Education declined to provide school absenteeism rates for the first week of lifted restrictions.

Students may be absent for a variety of reasons, such as "people struggling to make the pivot to endemic measures," recent March Break travel and community events, said Nienow. Absenteeism data takes time to review, he said.

The department understands some families have concerns about the lifted restrictions, he said, but school-age children are required to attend public school. If families do not wish to send students to school, they must apply for an exemption to homeschool or attend private school.

"Families who choose these options are responsible for ensuring their children receive effective instruction so they are prepared for continuing education or employment."

Safety measures, such as cleaning and disinfecting protocols and reduced class sizes, remain in place, said Nienow.