Schools will return to as normal a routine as possible when they open in less than three weeks, while still trying to protect students and staff, particularly those under 12 who aren't eligible for vaccination, Education Minister Dominic Cardy announced at a news briefing on Friday.
He said all school staff will have to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing, and vaccinations for students 12 or older is strongly encouraged.
"Vaccines have allowed New Brunswickers to return to living a life that is much closer to normal over the past few months, but we will still be living with COVID-19, especially while those under 12 are waiting for an approved vaccine," said Cardy.
He said students will be able to experience more activities, including "normal" music classes, field trips, and extra-curricular or intramural activities at all grade levels.
All students will be required to wear a mask on school buses and in all areas outside their classroom. The plan also requires students and staff to wear a mask if they have one symptom of COVID-19.
"In the event of an outbreak, Public Health may require students and staff to wear masks throughout the day," says the news release. "Students in kindergarten to Grade 8 will be required to leave a clean mask at school. Schools will have a supply of masks in case of an outbreak."
Kindergarten to Grade 8
Kindergarten to Grade 8 will return to regular class sizes, and there will no longer be any classroom bubbles.
"However, since COVID-19 vaccines for students under 12 have not yet been approved, additional protections will be implemented," according to the plan.
Those extra measures include masks in indoor common areas for students and staff, no in-person assemblies, reducing congestion in hallways, and using outdoor spaces when possible.
Visitors will also be limited inside schools and community groups will not be allowed to use school facilities.
Students will continue to be required to disinfect their own desks.
High school students will return to full-time, in-person learning.
Masks will be required outside the classroom.
While assemblies will be permitted, sizes will be limited and everyone will have to wear a mask. Teachers are encouraged to use outdoor spaces whenever possible.
Visitors will be limited inside the school.
"As vaccination rates vary around the province, additional layers of protection will be put in place, by health region, based on youth vaccination rates," according to the news release.
"These include students and staff using masks in common areas and limiting community use of schools to youth-based groups and organizations. These measures will be lifted, by region, once 90 per cent of those in the 12-19 age group have received two doses of an approved vaccine."
Cardy said current vaccination rates among high school students are significantly lower than expected.
The government's COVID-19 dashboard says 72.7 per cent of people in the 12-to-19 age group have received first dose of vaccine, and 56.8 per cent have received two.
Cardy said the rates "are not yet at a point where there would be significant protection in the event of an outbreak."
Restrictions will remain in place until the rate of vaccination among 12- to 19-year-olds in a health zone reaches 90 per cent fully vaccinated. Right now, most health zones are sitting at about 50 per cent in that age group.
Cardy also said restrictions could vary from school to school, depending on the size of the building.
"We have roughly 70 high schools across the province, and they vary enormously in size," he said. "So things could, again this year, as they did last year, look quite different from school to school."
School buses will return to normal capacity, but will continue to be disinfected daily.
"Students are encouraged to sit in the same seats and with the same students as much as possible. Students must wash or sanitize their hands before leaving home in the morning," according to the plan.
All students must wear masks while on the bus, with the bus driver excepted, as long as the curtains that were installed last year are in place.
If a case is detected
Cardy said a school will close for one day if a single case is confirmed. That break will allow public health officials to do contact tracing and testing if necessary.
"So this is a new measure, a stricter measure, and one that I think is an appropriate way of handling a variant of COVID that is much more transmissible and can move much more quickly once it's established," explained Cardy.
"So to nip those outbreaks in the bud, this pause, I believe, is an effective and appropriate measure."
In addition to the automatic one-day closure, a single confirmed case will trigger "an immediate risk assessment" that could lead to a prolonged shutdown, Dr. Cristin Muecke, deputy chief medical officer of health, explained during the briefing.
Students would continue to learn from home in the event of a shutdown, Muecke said.
Public health officials will contact those individuals who must self-monitor or self-isolate.
No news from public health will continue to be good news, as only those affected will be contacted, Cardy said.
The back-to-school plan states that "teaching and learning must not stop if students are sent home because of an outbreak. As part of their preparations for the upcoming school year, school personnel must develop contingency plans for continued learning when students are not physically able to be in school. For example, teachers may have kits that they can send home with younger students, they may be ready to teach online, etc."
Mandatory vaccination for students?
Cardy, a longtime advocate of mandatory vaccinations for students, said he would like to see mandatory vaccination for COVID-19 for students 12 and older — and even younger when vaccines are approved for those under 12.
Vaccinations are the best way to keep students safe and keep the school experience as normal as possible for everyone, Cardy said, noting he was "thrilled" that his colleagues decided to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for all government employees.
"I'm proud to be a part of the team that made that call," he said.
On Thursday, the province announced that vaccines will be mandatory for all government employees. Those who are not fully vaccinated will have to wear face masks at work until they are fully vaccinated.
Being fully vaccinated will also be a condition of employment for new hires in the public sector, Public Health said in a news release.
Details of the vaccine policy, including when it will go into effect, are still being finalized.
The province's COVID-19 dashboard breaks cases down by age groups that don't allow for calculations to be made about all school-aged children. In those under 10, there have been 170 cases, and in those 10 to 19 years old, there have been 200 cases.
Cardy said 50 schools were affected by COVID-19 during the 2020-21 school year, with about 100 confirmed cases. But that, he said, only resulted in 28 lost school days.
Since May 26, all New Brunswickers 12 and older have been eligible to be vaccinated.
Cardy said education officials will continue to encourage vaccinations and make it easy for people to get them, including providing transportation to vaccination sites.
Parents and teachers have been waiting for information about the return to school, some saying they wish they were brought into the loop earlier.
Cardy said he'll have more information in the coming days for parents of preschool-age children.
With schools opening in a little over two weeks, he said the department's priority was to finalize the back-to-school plan.