New Brunswick’s education minister said students will “hopefully” return to in-person learning on Jan. 31, as the province moves to spend $3 million on HEPA filtration systems for some classrooms.
During a briefing on Monday, Dominic Cardy told reporters he is optimistic students will be able to return, but that the final decision will be based on Public Health advice.
The province is currently in a 16-day lockdown, with the goal of bringing down COVID-19 cases. The restrictions are set to ease on Jan. 31, which would also see the return of in-person classes for students.
Students have been taking part in remote learning since Jan. 11.
“We moved online because Public Health was loud and clear, and the Department of Health as well, that we were facing a really difficult situation with our hospitals,” Cardy said.
“We have that limited capacity and when Public Health said that schools being open, as much as we know that’s desirable from a mental health point of view and all of the other reasons why in-person schooling is important, but when they said the size and numbers of those gatherings would likely pose a risk to our hospitals, of course we listened. I’ll continue to listen.”
On Monday, the province reported 381 new PCR-confirmed COVID-19 cases, 659 self-reported positive rapid test results, three deaths, and 469 health-care workers currently isolating after testing positive for the virus.
Back in September 2021, during initial discussions about HEPA – or high-efficiency particulate air – filters, Cardy said there wasn’t enough evidence they would work to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission in classrooms.
The province commissioned a report on the use of HEPA filters. Cardy said on Monday that the report found the systems could be used as part of a layered approach to improving air quality.
The caveat, Cardy indicated, is that the filters have to be installed properly and placed in the correct spot in each room.
“We know we need to use every single available tool,” he said.
The 2,000 portable HEPA filters will be distributed to 60 schools that do not have integrated mechanical ventilation systems.
The province plans to install them in the next couple of days.
Masks, bubbles and contact tracing
In preparation for the return to classes, Cardy said the province has been considering different ways to minimize interruptions and is “aggressively” looking for more teachers.
Work includes “movement of staff” within schools to help alleviate teacher shortages due to isolation requirements or illness.
The province is also looking into accrediting teachers with foreign credentials.
Meanwhile, Cardy said changes to school rules that were set out as part of Level 3 of the Winter Action Plan will help keep students safe.
The changes include classroom bubbles for children in Kindergarten to Grade 8, masking indoors except while eating or drinking, and outdoor masking.
If the province moves to Level 2 when school starts, as hoped, students in Kindergarten to Grade 8 will no longer have to wear masks outdoors if they are in their bubbles.
Teachers will receive “quality face masks,” Cardy said, which would be designated KN95 or higher.
“We are hopeful this will add yet another layer of protection for our students and staff,” he said, adding that proper mask use will be enforced.
The province has also limited the use of wind instruments and singing, as well as brought in vaccination requirements for extracurricular activities for students aged 12 and over.
As for contact tracing, families will be responsible for notifying schools if their children test positive for COVID-19.
Some districts are creating websites to inform families of cases in their schools, he noted.
“We are working for more stability for families and students when cases are reported,” he said.
“We will ask families to be vigilant and to monitor for symptoms.”
— With files from Andrew Graham and Nathalie Sturgeon