New Brunswick's students will return to in-person learning on Monday, Jan. 31, barring an unexpected surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations before then, Education Minister Dominic Cardy said Monday.
Most students in the province have been at home since the holiday break, with the province initially announcing online learning would begin Jan. 11 and continue until Jan. 21.
With the province moving to Level 3 of its COVID-19 winter plan, students' return to schools was pushed back further to Jan. 31 amid soaring numbers of new COVID-19 infections.
At a livestreamed update on Monday afternoon, Cardy outlined the department's plan to reopen schools to in-person learning, including information about HEPA filters in classrooms and masking protocols for teachers and students.
Cardy cautioned that the Monday return date will depend on Public Health's recommendation, which he expects in the coming days, but said he is "optimistic that it will be next week."
He noted that 60 schools which currently do not have integrated mechanical ventilation systems will have HEPA filtration units installed in classrooms by Monday, Jan. 31.
The following changes, which are also listed in the province's winter plan, will take effect when students return to in-person learning, whether that return occurs at Level 2 or Level 3 of the plan:
Classrooms bubbles for students in kindergarten to Grade 8
Universal indoor masking, except when eating or drinking, for staff, students at all grade levels
At Level 2: K-8 students not required to wear mask outdoors if within their bubble
At Level 3: masking outdoors for all students
Limit use of wind instruments and singing
Vaccination requirements for those 12 and older for extracurricular activities, sports and clubs
KN95-grade masks or higher will be provided for teachers and staff
Well-fitting, three-layer masks recommended for students
Families will be responsible for notifying schools if their child tests positive
2,000 portable HEPA filtration units to be installed
Education Minister Dominic Cardy detailed a plan to install portable HEPA filtration systems in 2,000 classrooms across the province before in-person classes resume on Jan. 31.
Sixty schools in New Brunswick have no integrated mechanical ventilation systems, as of September. Unlike the 234 schools in the province that do have integrated ventilation systems, these schools must rely instead on opening doors and windows to circulate air.
Last month, Cardy said, the department commissioned a report to look into ongoing efforts to improve ventilation in schools.
That report, by RPC Science and Engineering, concluded that while there is "no evidence directly proving that HEPA filtration reduces COVID-19 transmission" in the classroom, it can reduce the propagation of airborne particles when properly installed and combined with masking.
Given the transmissibility of Omicron, "we know we need to use every single available tool," Cardy said.
The department has purchased 2,000 units at a cost of $3 million. Installation of those systems is already underway in the 60 schools and should be completed by Jan. 31, Cardy said.
Projects are also in the works to outfit 11 of the 60 schools with full ventilation systems.
The remaining 49 will have ventilation systems installed within the next four or five years, said assistant deputy minister of corporate services Robert Penney, who was also at Monday's livestreamed update.
Cardy also thanked "all the folks who engaged with me online" about HEPA filters.
"Through raising those concerns, it encouraged a dialogue inside the department that led to ... the announcement that I'm making today."
Plans to backfill for staff shortages
The province is working to bolster the ranks of supply teachers ahead of the planned return to in-person learning on Monday, Jan. 31, Education Minister Dominic Cardy says.
The Education Department has been reaching out to department staff, as well as district staff and others who have teaching credentials, in anticipation of staff absences due to COVID-19 infection or self-isolation.
"We are going to be facing the likelihood of severe shortages of supply teachers," he said.
"We want to try to have a pool of people ready to be able to deploy if it's needed."
Asked if the department had any modelling or estimates of the kind of case numbers it expects when in-person learnings resumes, Cardy said he did not.
"The only prediction I'm going make is we're going to have cases, and we're going to have to have schools that do move online for periods of time. We'll have operational impacts and we'll have to deal with them," he said.
"That's just with Omicron. Whatever comes next after that might change the game again."
There are "ample" appointments available for parents or guardians to book appointments for children under age 12 to get vaccinated, the province's chief medical officer of health said Monday.
"It is important for parents with children aged five to 11 to get their child vaccinated to help protect against COVID-19 before in-person learning and other activities resume," Dr. Jennifer Russell said in a news release.
As of Monday, 54.5 per cent of children in that age group had received their first dose of the vaccine. Those children are eligible to receive their second shot eight weeks after getting their first.
Among eligible adults in New Brunswick, 83.8 per cent are fully vaccinated and 91.7 per cent have had one dose of the vaccine, according to the province's dashboard.
131 in hospital with COVID-19
Another three people who had COVID-19 have died, Public Health said Monday, including a person in their 90s in the Moncton region, Zone 1, a person in their 80s in the Saint John region, Zone 2 and a person in their 70s in the Edmundston region, Zone 4.
This brings the current total of COVID-related deaths in the province to 212.
There are 12 people in intensive care and another 119 in hospital, for a total of 131 people hospitalized with COVID-19, Public Health said in a news release.
Seventy-four of those currently hospitalized were admitted for reasons other than COVID-19.
Of those in hospital, 101 are 60 or over, and four people are on a ventilator. Three people 19 or under are hospitalized. The seven-day rolling average of hospitalizations is available on the COVID-19 dashboard.
There are currently 469 health-care workers who have tested positive for the virus and are isolating.
The rate of people hospitalized and in ICU continues to most greatly impact people who are unvaccinated and those who are over six months from their second dose.
Information about the rates of cases and hospitalizations based on vaccination status, the age and origin of new cases, and additional information, is available on the COVID-19 dashboard.