A high school student from the First Nation of Listuguj, on the Gaspé peninsula across the river from New Brunswick, received her COVID-19 vaccine today, giving her the green light to return to in-person classes for the first time in more than five months.
Hannah Vicaire attends Sugarloaf Senior High School in Campbellton, N.B., but she lives a short drive away, across the Restigouche River in Quebec.
About 100 students from Quebec have been barred from crossing the border to attend school in Campbellton since October, when an agreement between the two provinces — which allowed Listuguj and Pointe-à-la-Croix to be part of the Atlantic bubble — collapsed.
But Listuguj Chief Darcy Gray said both communities have been successfully keeping COVID-19 at bay, and it's time for the students to get back to class.
"It's getting harder and harder to understand and justify why our students wouldn't be allowed back, when as a region we're doing very well in terms of compliance and safety protocols," he said.
Gray said although there will always be a risk going back and forth between the two communities, there's a heightened sense of safety knowing more people, especially the students, are getting vaccinated.
He added getting the shot is not mandatory and it's not being forced on anyone.
Vicaire said she'd always planned to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but getting the shot in time to return to school for her last semester was an added incentive.
"Just knowing that if I get the vaccine and I'm able to go to school, it makes it 10 times better," she said. Vicaire says she's both "overwhelmed" and "excited" to get back to in-person classes.
She says the constant concerns about wifi connections and falling behind her peers have made the last few months — with her and her fellow students from Listuguj studying at the adult learning centre — challenging.
"It doesn't feel like school," Vicaire said. "It doesn't feel the same and I don't have motivation to go."
"I would much rather be sitting in front of my teacher, listening, and actually being able to talk to other people and ask questions and not be forgotten about," she said.
Until Vicaire left her job at Dairy Queen just two weeks ago, she'd been cleared to drive across the border to work, taking her usual route past her high school.
"It was kind of awkward, I could go to work but I couldn't go to school," she said.
'Too little, too late': Listuguj mom
Listuguj mother Donna Metallic said it's all "too little, too late," and she's unhappy that access to a better education with in-person classes is dependent on the vaccination campaign.
"Listuguj is being ostracized to go above and beyond, to sit in a classroom that kicked them out back in November," she said. "I gave up hope on that system."
Metallic said she's glad her daughter will get to graduate this year as planned, but that it's been a long and hard year for the students from Listuguj, especially with the tension between the two communities since the border closed.
She said there are still older and immunocompromised people who need to receive the vaccine, yet students aged 16-18 are being bumped up the list just so they can get their education, because officials are "playing politics."
New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy said he's glad the number of vaccinations is going up in both provinces and that, once Quebec students have received the shot, they're welcome to be a part of the Campbellton community again.
Students under the age of 16 will be able to return to in-person classes, without the vaccine.