FREDERICTON — New Brunswick's back-to-school plan ends classroom bubbles for kindergarten to Grade 8 and requires all school and district staff to be vaccinated or subject to regular testing, Education Minister Dominic Cardy said Friday.
Vaccination for students 12 and older is strongly encouraged, he added.
"New variants come from people who are not vaccinated," Cardy told reporters. "The more people who choose not to get vaccinated runs the risk of ever more infection, ever more lethal, ever more dangerous variants that can further destabilize and uproot our lives, our communities and bring heartbreak, pain and suffering to all of us. Please get your shots."
Students in kindergarten to Grade 8 will wear masks in indoor common areas and all students will wear masks on school buses. Classrooms are not considered common areas. And unlike last year, children will not be confined to small class sizes or grouped into classroom bubbles.
High school students will return to school full time and will need to be masked during assemblies and in common areas of school buildings until 90 per cent of students in their health zones are vaccinated.
The plan also includes a vaccine mandate for teachers and school staff. "As employees of the provincial government, school and district staff will be required to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing," according to the province's written guidelines. Cardy did not gives details about where and how frequently teachers and staff will be tested.
The minister said schools will stay closed to community groups and others who had used the buildings during off-hours. "The schools will not be open to non-student-related groups," he said. "At high schools, once the 12-19 age group reaches a 90 per cent vaccination level, we will look at removing that restriction."
Buildings will be subject to frequent cleaning and fans will not be allowed in classrooms. If the outdoor temperature or humidex value is 36 C or above, students will learn from home.
Cardy said if one COVID-19 case is identified in a school, students will switch to remote learning and the building will be closed for at least one day to allow for contact tracing and a risk assessment. He called the one-day pause an "effective and appropriate measure."
New Brunswick schools, Cardy said, did remarkably well during the last school year, with the loss of just 28 days of learning.
Deputy chief officer of health Dr. Cristin Muecke told reporters schools "did not drive any of the outbreaks that occurred."
"For the most part, the infections of students occurred outside of school in gatherings of family and friends and so on, rather than the classroom."
The province's back-to-school plan came slightly over two weeks ahead of the start of the new school year. Cardy apologized for the anxiety among staff and students as they waited for the report, but he said it was important to gather the latest science and get the report right.
He said the New Brunswick Teachers' Association and other unions were consulted. No one from the teachers association was available for comment Friday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 20, 2021.
Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press