New Brunswick

'Most' COVID measures that teachers want are already in place, says Cardy

"Most" of the COVID-19 measures New Brunswick teachers are seeking before in-person learning resumes are already in place or will be when students return to school, says Education Minister Dominic Cardy.

Report on possible use of HEPA filters to combat COVID in classrooms is complete, more info next week

New Brunswick students are scheduled to continue learning from home until Jan. 31, under Level 3 of the province's COVID-19 winter plan. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

"Most" of the COVID-19 measures New Brunswick teachers are seeking before in-person learning resumes are already in place or will be when students return to school, says Education Minister Dominic Cardy.

Earlier this week, the New Brunswick Teachers' Association called upon the government to adopt several new COVID-19 measures at public schools and to reinstate several others before students return to in-person learning, currently scheduled for Jan. 31.

The province needs to "prioritize a safe and operationally sound plan," said the professional association, which represents about 6,500 teachers.

"The NBTA asks for masks for all teachers, hiring willing supply teachers, bubbles for classrooms, plus release of ventilation report + other measures," Cardy posted on social media. "Most of them are in place or will be when school resumes in-person; the HEPA report's being translated," he wrote.

The department has retained a consultant – RPC Science and Engineering – to review research and make recommendations regarding the potential use of HEPA (high-efficiency particulate) filtration units in schools, said department spokesperson Flavio Nienow.

"The report has recently been completed and we will have more to share on this next week," he said in an emailed statement.

Cardy declined on social media to comment on the report prior to it being released.

HEPA-filtered air purifiers like this one, in a Toronto public school, can reduce the concentration of some viruses in the air by capturing small particles, such as the water droplets that can carry the coronavirus, says professor of engineering Linsey Marr. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Sixty schools in New Brunswick had no integrated mechanical ventilation systems, as of September. Unlike the 234 schools in the province that do have integrated ventilation systems, these schools must rely instead on opening doors and windows to circulate air.

Other provinces, such as Ontario, spent millions on HEPA filters for schools before classes started last fall.

Last week, a professor of engineering who studies how viruses are transmitted in the air took issue with Cardy's suggestion that using HEPA filters to help combat COVID-19 in classrooms could actually make things worse.

Linsey Marr of Virginia Tech said "there's no question" HEPA filters can improve air quality and she doesn't see how they could be harmful  — "unless people take apart the HEPA air cleaner and grab the filter and start, you know, rubbing it on their face."

The Department of Education has enough KN95 masks for school personnel to last a 'few weeks' once in-person classes resume, and is trying to secure more, a spokesperson said. (CBC)

The department has secured a supply of non-fit-tested respirators, such as KN95, for school personnel to use during the "first few weeks" back to in-person learning, said Nienow.

"Efforts to secure additional supplies of KN95 masks are underway," he said.

"Public Health and WorkSafeNB continue to recommend a well-fitted three-layer community mask, or a medical/surgical mask, for people in the community or other workplaces," he added.

Earlier this month, the government posted mask guidance for the public on social media.

"Wearing a well-fitted mask is an important added layer of protection. Think about your risk when choosing what kind of mask to wear."

The tweet described non-medical masks, including three-layer cloth masks, two-layer cloth masks with a filter, and disposable masks, as "good."

Medical masks, including surgical masks, KN95s and N95s, are "best," it said.

Face shields have been available to all staff since September 2020, noted Nienow.

He did not respond to the association's call for KN95 masks for students.

As for staffing shortages, the department is working with school districts to "explore several options," including possibly redeploying "other professionals," Nienow said, without elaborating.

The province should hire all available supply teachers to reduce interruptions for families because of staff shortages due to isolation and illness, the association said.

The teachers' group also called for a return to classroom and playground bubbles and smaller class sizes to enhance the ability to physically distance.

"Social distancing in classrooms is extremely challenging," acknowledged Nienow. The department announced in December that classroom bubbles would be reinstated after the holiday break for K-8 classes "to protect students while maintaining regular classroom school activities," he pointed out, without addressing plans for older students, playground bubbles or smaller class sizes.

The association isn't advocating for a hybrid attendance model for the whole province, said president Connie Keating. But she contends schools should have a greater say.

"We have some very large schools where the ability to physical distance is near impossible. It's about crowd control, really," said Keating.

"So we have our cafeterias between classes. We have, you know, some of our schools have, you know, very narrow hallways.

"Our school administrators know their school communities and they need to be allowed the freedom to make some of those decisions."

Superintendents have been advised to be flexible with staff scheduling to allow teachers time to get their shots, according to a department spokesperson. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

When it comes to the teachers' request to facilitate easier access to boosters for teachers and staff, teachers were given early access to booster shots, becoming eligible for their third dose in December, said Nienow.

"Superintendents have also been advised to be flexible with staff scheduling to allow time to get their shots," he said.

Almost 60 per cent of teachers who participated in surveys at six schools districts in both the anglophone and francophone sectors have received their booster dose, Nienow said. He did not provide the numbers.

In addition, self-reporting data from the anglophone sector indicates that approximately 15 per cent of teachers who participated in the surveys have booked their appointments.

"We continue to encourage eligible teachers who haven't yet attempted to book their appointments to do so as soon as possible."

Connie Keating, president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association, said teachers want clear minimum safety standards set for in-person learning. (Zoom interview )

The association contends the current situation, which sees individual teachers doing both in-person and online teaching at the same time, is causing a disservice to students, is confusing for families and "demoralizing and confusing for teachers," the association said.

"If left unaddressed, this will compound the existing teacher shortage," it warned.

Nienow said efforts have been made to ensure vulnerable or at-risk students can still access the services and resources they need while other students participate in-home learning.

The department is aware these measures have "presented additional challenges to educators, and it's been a difficult school year so far," he said.

"That's why we'd like to thank all school personnel for their continued flexibility and professionalism by going above and beyond to support the educational needs of their students."

Nienow did not address some of the other issues raised by the association.

For example, it wants the government to set a clear minimum standard for safely staffing schools, which, if not achieved, triggers an operational school closure for health and safety reasons.

In addition, it's seeking a report on the number of teachers who are experiencing burnout or choosing to leave the profession early, which it says has increased, as well as an action plan on how teacher shortages will be addressed in the short- and long-term.

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