Education Minister Dominic Cardy is defending a trip to a conference in Alberta by dozens of school principals and education officials at the very moment COVID-19 was putting a staffing squeeze on schools.
Principals from five of New Brunswick's seven school districts were in Banff from April 9 to 12 for a conference on "reimagining school leadership."
"We haven't had any opportunities for our professionals to have any of these [professional development] opportunities for a couple of years now," Cardy said in an interview.
"The number of positive comments that we heard about what we're doing in New Brunswick and offers to help us further improve definitively made it worthwhile in my mind."
But Saint John-area parent Cheryl Johnson says the conference outraged her for several reasons.
"One, expense. Two, teacher shortages. Three, we can do all that on Zoom. Four, disease spread. Like it's so dangerous and unnecessary to be doing things like this."
Johnson and her partner have been keeping their children home since March break because of various cold and flu symptoms, though no one has tested positive for COVID.
That means they're both working part-time.
"We're trying to make bills meet. We're juggling all the things and then I see a group photo of a bunch of principals dressed up as cowboys in Alberta — like, it's like I'm living on another planet!"
She said the cost of the travel and the large in-person sessions send the wrong message, let alone the fact that the event took principals away from their schools when they could have been pitching in for teachers who are out sick with COVID.
A total of 57 principals and staff from all four anglophone school districts and the Francophone South district attended, along with 10 staff from Cardy's department.
Cardy, his anglophone deputy minister Georgy Daly and Opposition Liberal education critic Benoit Bourque were also there.
The minister said schooling didn't suffer as a result of the principals being in Banff.
Trip didn't affect school operations: Cardy
"We did not have any adverse impacts as a result of this, which was good," he said.
"I don't think anyone would have gone if they had felt it was going to impact the operations of their school, and based on what we saw, it didn't."
The most recent statistics on unfilled absences show 1050.5 teachers and 682.5 education assistants were absent the week of April 4, just before the conference.
Each unfilled absence represents one day missed when the teacher or educational assistant could not be replaced by a supply teacher or anyone else.
Anglophone West district spokesperson Jennifer Read said the trip was organized "prior to realizing there would be increased challenges with staff absences. … Travel to conferences is always done in alignment with guidelines we have set in our district."
The conference took place at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, described as "a stunning venue in the middle of one of the world's most beautiful UNESCO World Heritage locations."
Several participants raved about the setting and took photos of themselves with the Rocky Mountains in the background.
"Nice work if you can get it," departmental learning specialist Amber Bishop wrote in a tweet accompanied by a photo of a craggy, snow-packed summit. "Should keep the daydreamers happy."
During one discussion, delegates were told that 95 per cent of principals want to spend more time in classrooms with teachers, but they were only spending 4.7 hours per week on "instructional leadership activities."
Cardy said the five school districts paid for the travel of their principals and staff out of their existing budgets for professional development.
The conference, uLead 2022, was organized by the Canadian Association of Principals and the Council for School Leadership, part of the Alberta Teachers Association.
According to the conference website, the event would "provide every delegate with an opportunity to both see a variety of models of innovative leadership and to also discuss the direction we should be moving in as school leaders and systems in our age."
Cardy said discussions about learning gaps, technology, curriculum and the mental health of students during the pandemic will help improve education in New Brunswick.
Photos show almost no one wearing masks
Photos from the event on social media show almost no one wearing masks during large group sessions, though Cardy said he wore his the entire time he was indoors.
"It's up to others to decide how they want to follow the rules, but why anyone would want to get COVID is beyond me," he said.
Johnson said the conference makes it seem like COVID-19 is over, but that's not the case for people with compromised immune systems or other health conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus.
"I would love to feel comfortable saying we don't live in a pandemic anymore," she said.
"But that's not what the New Brunswick Medical Society is saying. That's not what Dr. Theresa Tam is saying. That's not what most doctors and nurses are saying across this country.
"Yeah, going on a trip, learning more, that would be wonderful. But now's not that time."