Heat warnings close schools, prompt questions about classroom safety

·4 min read
Environment Canada has issued heat warnings for most of southern and western New Brunswick. (Shane Fowler/CBC - image credit)
Environment Canada has issued heat warnings for most of southern and western New Brunswick. (Shane Fowler/CBC - image credit)

A heat wave that closed schools Monday and is expected to continue into Tuesday has prompted questions about schools' cooling systems and how early-dismissal announcements are handled.

High temperatures and humidity closed schools in every school district following heat warnings for the southern and central parts of New Brunswick.

Environment Canada issued 14 heat warnings in the Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John areas and warned temperatures could hit 34 C on Monday and 33 C on Tuesday. With the humidex, temperatures were expected to feel more like 43 C on Monday and about 40 C on Tuesday.

Many schools in the province do not have a cooling system or air conditioning.

Fans are also not permitted inside schools due to concerns about spreading air particles during the pandemic.

Combined with required masking protocol, there is concern that the heat wave could be a safety hazard in classrooms.

The highest temperatures were expected Monday, in areas spanning from St. Stephen and Northern Charlotte County to Moncton and southeast New Brunswick to Kent County to Woodstock and Carleton County.

Decision to keep teachers at school questioned

The announcement of early school dismissals prompted some criticism from New Brunswick Teachers' Association president Rick Cuming.

Cuming said the fact that students were sent home but staff were expected to stay in the schools, where COVID-19 has "exacerbated" ventilation and heat problems, is a head-scratcher.

"Frankly, this defies logic," Cuming said in an interview Monday. "If conditions are not safe for students, it would not be safe for school staff, either."

As well, he said, the early-dismissal announcement came later than expected.

The New Brunswick Teachers' Association was in talks with the Education Department last week about how to safely operate schools during a heat wave, and had been told that such announcements would be made before 6 a.m., Cuming said.

Monday's announcement came at around 8:30 a.m., with students being sent home at around noon.

In a scrum Monday afternoon, Minister of Education Dominic Cardy said that the current conditions are in line with human resources practices and guidelines around working in warm environments.

But he noted that the current weather conditions have highlighted the need to move on upgrading ventilation in all schools, which was already on the department's radar because of the pandemic.

"So we started that process in March and some reports on what we need to do next," he said, adding it is "definitely climbing up the priority list."

Heat wave and ventilation

CBC News asked the Department of Education how many schools do not have a cooling system or air conditioning.

In an emailed response Monday afternoon, the department said school districts are "responsible for the management of school buildings, including identifying and prioritising projects such as the installation of cooling systems."

It did not specify how many schools do not have cooling systems.

Here is a list of schools' early dismissals by district:

  • Anglophone West: The district tweeted 64 of the 69 schools will be dismissed three hours earlier than the normal due to the forecasted temperatures. The five schools with a regular full day are: Nashwaaksis Middle School, Royal Road Elementary School, Harvey High School, McAdam High School, and Minto Elementary and Middle School.

  • Anglophone North: All schools except Gretna Green School and Bonar Law Memorial School had an early dismissal, spokesperson Meredith Caissie said.

  • Anglophone South: St. Stephen Middle, St. Stephen High, St. Stephen Elementary, Milltown Elementary and Lawrence Station Elementary closed for students at 12:00 p.m. Monday, spokesperson Jessica Hanlon said.

  • Anglophone east: All schools will be closing early Monday. Elementary schools started dismissal at 12:15 p.m.

  • Francophone Nord-Est: Early dismissal for all schools.

  • Francophone Nord-Ouest: Early dismissal for all schools.

  • Francophone Sud: Early dismissal for several schools. For schools affected by early dismissal, buses were scheduled to depart two hours earlier, except for schools in the Fredericton area, where the departure is scheduled three hours earlier.

The province requires districts to monitor weather forecasts in all regions, Department of Education spokesperson Danielle Elliot also said Monday.

"We are supporting districts to do a half day for students in schools without air conditioning if the combined temperature will reach 40 C … with humidex," she said in an emailed statement.

Multiple school districts said staff will evaluate Tuesday's weather before extending closures or early dismissals.

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