New Brunswick

School district dismissed COVID concerns of parent with cancer, child and youth advocate finds

A New Brunswick school district told a parent with cancer who was worried their child might catch COVID-19 at school and infect them to home-school the child "at their own expense," according to the child and youth advocate.

Kelly Lamrock's review found some officials responding 'without sensitivity or legality'

Mask mandates in New Brunswick schools and early learning centres were lifted March 14, after students returned from March break. (wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

A New Brunswick school district told a parent with cancer who was worried their child might catch COVID-19 at school and infect them to home-school the child "at their own expense," according to the child and youth advocate.

Kelly Lamrock did not identify the school district, but said it was one of the "unacceptable responses" his office found when school districts were "faced with students who have vulnerable family members at home."

"In some cases, district officials have been responding without sensitivity or legality to these concerns," he wrote in a report to the legislative assembly Friday about his review of the lifting of COVID-19 measures in schools last month.

He recommended the government reinstate school COVID measures, such as mandatory masking, until May 21, see if they reduce case counts, and then work quickly to make a final decision that is "properly balanced, researched, communicated and implemented."

Lamrock, a lawyer and former education minister, also advised that 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."

Districts that attempt to send children home and make parents responsible for educational services when other children are receiving services are "flouting the law," he wrote.

A man wearing glasses in a blue and white striped dress shirt and grey blazer faces the camera in front of a grey background.
New Brunswick child, youth and seniors’ advocate Kelly Lamrock (CBC)

"The legislature clearly intended to protect children in a broader sense than simply those with diagnosed learning challenges, because the Education Act requires accommodation of a bona fide need.

"That a child would not wish to place a parent at risk of death or serious illness strikes us as a need in any humane understanding of the word, especially when children with seriously ill parents are already under significant stress," wrote Lamrock.

"In one reported case … a parent with documented needs was told to home-school their child at their own expense and question whether cancer is a disability at law. (It is). It should be noted that the Education Act is clear that when a child has a need that cannot be accommodated within the common classroom, an alternate site must be provided at the expense of the district, not the parent."

Province will continue to assess each case

Education Minister Dominic Cardy told reporters Friday that the province will continue to assess the merits of each case and be "as flexible" as possible.

He cited as an example the case of a parent with stage four cancer who had to be kept away from people because her immune system was compromised.

It's unclear whether he was talking about the same case as Lamrock.

"She was facing the horrible choice of either having her child go to school and be potentially exposed to COVID, or not seeing her child, potentially ever again," said Cardy.

"And that is not a situation that I want to have children or parents in this province have to face.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy told reporters he 'just cannot imagine' being in the position of a parent with stage four cancer who was facing the 'horrible choice of either having her child go to school and be potentially exposed to COVID, or not seeing her child, potentially ever again.' (CBC)

"So we're going to do everything we can, with the resources that we have, to be able to help in those sorts of circumstances," he said.

"It won't be a broad, across the province, across the system change, where we say that anyone who has got a [vulnerable] parent can just sign up for at-home learning. We are going to continue to look at it on a case-by-case basis. 

"But I've made it very clear to folks on the team … that we will do everything that we can within our powers and within the capacity of the system to absorb those extra pressures caused by doing our job of trying to make sure we can offer students a safe, high-quality education and not put families in a horrible position like the one I just described."

Lamrock recommended Public Health help the department understand what situations merit accommodation and when medical advice should be sought before a family is "dismissed out of hand."

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