About two weeks into the new school year, some new rules are now in effect for staff and students across New Brunswick in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The province is returning to a mandatory mask mandate as of 11:59 p.m. Tuesday as cases rise.
“There are 27 schools across six of the seven school districts (anglophone and francophone) currently impacted by COVID-19 cases across the province,” says Flavio Nienow, a Department of Education spokesperson, on Monday.
According to a news release from the province Friday, “20 schools across health zones 1, 3, 4 and 5 have been affected by about 80 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the start of the year.”
“By comparison, the 2020-21 school year had about 100 cases across 50 schools, in every health zone,” the news release stated.
Restrictions until kids can be vaccinated, epidemiologist suggests
St. John’s-based epidemiologist Susanne Gulliver says the COVID-19 situation in New Brunswick isn’t surprising given many COVID restrictions were removed at once and the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant.
“It’s not that much longer until we can vaccinate these kids,” Gulliver says. “I don’t think it’s too much to ask to continue with public health measures like masking, social distancing, capacity limits, until we can vaccinate the kids.”
Pfizer said Monday its COVID-19 vaccine is effective for children ages 5 to 11 and that it will seek U.S. authorization for this age group soon — a key step toward beginning vaccinations for youngsters.
A spokesperson for Pfizer Canada told Global News the company plans on submitting the data to Health Canada “as early as possible.”
Gulliver says it’s possible approval could be granted in Canada in December or January.
While continuing to reiterate most new cases are in people not fully vaccinated, Public Health hasn’t said how many of those New Brunswick cases are among kids who can’t get vaccinated.
The province no longer provides a case breakdown by age on the provincial dashboard, however, 57 of the 199 weekend cases reported Monday are among those younger than 20.
The province does still report the age brackets, only going as low as “19 and under.”
“Now, we’re dealing with the reality of not having enough people vaccinated,” N.B. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jennifer Russell said at a press conference.
The concern comes from the strain on the health-care system, even for regular, everyday procedures, as more people become hospitalized with COVID-19.
There are 23 people hospitalized due to the virus, with 14 in an intensive care unit. The province now has 484 active cases.
A mother’s experience
Starting the school year almost two weeks ago, Jenna Morton was feeling optimistic about sending her kids back to class.
But since then, a positive case has been reported in her daughter’s school.
“There was a one-day closure of the high school-middle school that our daughter attends,” Morton tells Global News, “and because the school system is so tight-knit in our community, I did keep our boys home from elementary school as well, just to kind of ease my mind and hope things settle down a little bit.”
With all three kids not yet old enough for the shot, she’s thankful she kept them home.
“Sure enough, the kids were home on Thursday,” she says. “By Thursday afternoon, we had the notice there had been an exposure on their school bus.”
The family was told to get tested, but despite booking Thursday, they couldn’t get to a local clinic until Sunday “because the system is so overwhelmed,” she says.
Morton is also worried about what the current situation means for the health-care system “if something else does happen… whether it’s COVID or not.”
“The system is so much different than what we are expecting to have to deal with,” she says. “That is what really scares me, as a parent.”
“We’ve had our children in the hospital in the past,” Morton says. “I know what it’s like to have to leave your children in the care of health-care professionals and leave the hospital. I don’t want to have to do that again.”
New rules now in place
School-aged children have been wearing masks since last Tuesday, when Education Minister Dominic Cardy announced a change in policy.
As of Monday, new restrictions are in place. Schools must keep classes together, or in “bubbles,” as much as possible, though there are no class size changes.
They must also try to encourage greater physical distancing, which could mean adjusting lunch or recess schedules.
Gym class will need to be taught outdoors — weather permitting — or with masks on indoors.
As well, no more assemblies will be permitted.
Kids can be ‘rapid transmitters,’ premier says
Premier Blaine Higgs wouldn’t commit to keeping the mask mandate for the entire population, but it will remain until children can be vaccinated.
If that 90 per cent target is hit in people 12 and older, “we’d be in a pretty good position,” he said.
There are currently no hospitalizations of youth under 12, Higgs said, but noted “kids can be rapid transmitters and transmit back to their parents and vice-versa.”
–With files from Rebecca Lau and The Associated Press