:As New Brunswick government officials passed the buck about who could make COVID-related decisions affecting schools, the province lifted restrictions without explaining the reasons to students, parents and staff shouldering the impact of its decisions.
New Brunswick Child, Youth and Seniors' Advocate Kelly Lamrock delivered that viewpoint in a far-reaching report issued Friday, April 22, following a study surrounding provincial restrictions in schools.
Among several concerns expressed in his report, Lamrock slammed what investigators cited as "blurred responsibility" for COVID decisions.
"There was mutual statutory responsibility, and decision-makers were each stating the other office was free to revise or change the decision, and neither was explaining the evidence behind it," said Lamrock in his report. "This public sense of vagueness and confusion was not in best interest of the children."
The Child and Youth Advocate issued a report criticizing government efforts surrounding schools, including eight recommendations "aimed at improving the safety and quality of the school environment for children."
Lamrock said his office launched the report in response to concerns expressed by parents and others.
"We received a number of public concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19 in schools following the lifting of most pandemic measures," he said. "We initially reached out to the chief medical officer of health and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in hopes that we could get clarity on the process of, and reasons for, the decision so as to inform the public. Following our inquiry, we had a number of concerns regarding the decision and advised the departments."
During a Friday morning press conference over Zoom, Lamrock said that despite "good cooperation" from the departments, officials failed to provide "clarity" surrounding evidence for their decisions.
Education and Early Child Development Minister Dominic Cardy responded to Lamrock's report during a Zoom press conference early Friday afternoon, including the province's failure to clarify the basis for its decisions to eliminate mask requirements in schools.
Cardy said Public Health provided evidence to cabinet but said he couldn't share that publicly because of cabinet confidentiality. He said Public Health would have to explain why it wasn't shared publicly.
While acknowledging he pushed hard to take specific action during the early days of the pandemic in 2020, Cardy said he eventually gave way to Public Health officials as their expertise in the virus grew.
He said he didn't want to politicize the decisions by standing against Public Health recommendations.
Except for a brief joint statement by Cardy and Health Minister Dorothy Shephard, the Department of Health has yet to comment on Lamrock's report.
"We appreciate the Child and Youth Advocate's interest in this issue and his concern for the wellbeing of our students and early learners," Cardy and Shephard said in their joint statement. "Both our departments know the best place for students is to be in school. They are more than just a place where students learn, they provide services that many depend on – such as socio-emotional supports and food programs."
Acting Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Yves Leger, also issued a brief statement, referring to the earlier Cardy and Shephard statement.
Leger said Public Health will review Lamrock’s recommendation, adding the Health Minister already noted she is also welcoming a review on COVID efforts from the auditor general.
Lamrock's report focused heavily on lifting mask mandates in schools, noting the inquiry found little "evidence, projections and measurements" to justify Public Health's recommendation. The report suggested Public Health based its decisions on an "overreliance" on what other provinces did.
"There are legitimate reasons to consider lifting mask mandates, and we support Public Health leading that decision," said Lamrock. "However, children deserve a decision which considers their rights and needs, with clear and relevant factual findings, which need to be communicated with clarity and accountability. We should be as vigilant in monitoring the lifting of mandates as we were at the start."
The report recommended Public Health review its mask decision with proper benchmarks, measurements and factual evidence. He recommended using the same timelines as other Maritimes provinces to review its masking rules.
Lamrock said Public Health's suggestion that vaccines are more important than the masks doesn't provide a qualified reason to lift the mask mandate.
"Why not masks and vaccines," he said.
Regarding vaccines, the report, noting the high number of unvaccinated children attending schools, recommended Public Health and Education and Early Childhood Development develop a strategy, backed up with regulation, if necessary, to increase the low vaccination rate of children aged 5-11.
Lamrock's report also offered legal advice, noting the department is legally required to provide accommodations to any student with exceptional needs. He explained that includes students with immediate family members at risk of severe complications from the COVID virus.
"The law is clear that a student with a need that cannot be accommodated in the common learning environment has to be provided with a safe place to learn," said Lamrock. "We strongly urge the department to ensure that the Education Act is followed."
Cardy said he recognized the importance of accommodation, sharing an anecdote of a mother with cancer facing the unfair dilemma of keeping their child home from school or avoiding all contact.
He urged Lamrock or the press corps to inform him or his department of anyone facing such a dilemma.
"Let us know if there's any area where you see us falling down on that because it's obviously extremely important," Cardy said.
Cardy said he welcomed Lamrock's report, noting he agreed with almost all the recommendations.
Lamrock said the government's decision to enact his recommendations falls to elected MLAs, not him. Despite the polarized debate surrounding COVID measures now, he said, the government has a strong track record of managing COVID early in the pandemic.
"We've certainly done better. We could do better again," Lamrock said. "We need to be just as active when we exit the pandemic as we were when we entered it."
Jim Dumville, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, River Valley Sun