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New Brunswick schools see high case counts as province prepares to lift restrictions

Click to play video: 'Some parents worry as New Brunswick plans to drop COVID-19 rules for schools on March 14'
Some parents worry as New Brunswick plans to drop COVID-19 rules for schools on March 14
WATCH: New Brunswick is planning to drop all mandatory COVID-19 rules for the public school system on March 14. It comes as the virus continues to spread within the system, as more than 11,000 cases have been reported since the beginning of the school year. As Nathalie Sturgeon reports, the risk is too great for some parents – Mar 1, 2022

As New Brunswick’s province-wide COVID-19 restrictions are closer to being lifted, so, too, are the restrictions and rules in place in the public school system.

When all mandated public health measures end on March 14, masking will no longer be required in public spaces. Capacity limits and physical distancing will end, and those who test positive for COVID-19 will no longer be required to isolate.

COVID-19 continues to spread in schools, according to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, with roughly 11,063 cases having been reported since Sept. 7.

Out of the 294 schools in the public school system, 291 have been impacted by the virus since Sept. 7. At least 121 have been impacted since Feb. 25.

The Department of Education and Early Childhood told Global News on Tuesday that Minister Dominic Cardy, was not available for an interview.

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In a statement, it said COVID-19 cases in schools reflect what is happening in the community.

“We knew that, given the presence of Omicron, the return to in-person learning and the provincewide move to loosen COVID-19 restrictions, there would be more cases impacting the school system,” said Flavio Nienow, a spokesperson for the department.

It said it had taken steps to lessen the spread, which were in place while the province was under more restrictive levels of the Winter Action Plan. It, too, will be lifted on March 14 along with the emergency order.

Ventilation in schools

During a briefing on Jan. 24, Dominic Cardy told reporters that about $3 million had been invested in high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters for schools that did not have proper ventilation.

Back in September 2021, during initial discussions about HEPA filters, Cardy said there wasn’t enough evidence they would work to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission in classrooms.

Read more: Experts dispute New Brunswick education minister’s claims about air filters

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.

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Cardy said that the filters have to be installed properly and placed in the correct spot in each room. At the time, he encouraged teachers and staff not to move them once they were placed.

The department said it purchased and installed 2,000 portable HEPA filters in 60 schools without integrated mechanical ventilation systems before in-person classes resumed.

“We are installing integrated mechanical ventilation systems in 11 schools that do not have them in 2022-23, including Norton Elementary School, École Blanche-Bourgeois, Hillsborough Elementary School, Burton Elementary School, Birchmount School, Connaught Street School, Montgomery Street Elementary School, Inglewood School, Forest Glen School, Barnhill Memorial School and Back Bay Elementary School.”

Too risky for some parents

For mother Haley Jones, keeping her children in the school system was too risky, both because of mounting cases and the lifting of restrictions.

“So our kids are completely out of school now,” she said in an interview. “They will be for at least the rest of the year. I won’t put my kids back in school.

“Well, I would if COVID disappeared — that’d be fine — but if didn’t. My kids won’t go back until there are masks and testing and contact tracing at the absolute minimum.”

She said a gradual lifting of restrictions would have more ideal.

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“It’s really frustrating, especially when you have Higgs saying people won’t be left behind, but we are.”

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: New Brunswick set to scrap proof of vaccination requirements'
COVID-19: New Brunswick set to scrap proof of vaccination requirements

As for the collection and reporting of cases, the department said “is currently holding meetings with stakeholders to decide the next steps.”

“Once those meetings have concluded, more information will be available, and families will be informed of any COVID-related policy changes,” Nienow said.

— with files from Rebecca Lau.

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