Riverview High School teachers and staff have been told to arrange their own COVID-19 tests this weekend, after a positive case was confirmed at the school on Wednesday.
The Department of Education has instructed those who have not been identified as a close contact and are asymptomatic to register online for a test, a memo obtained by CBC News shows.
"Public Health may/will tell them that they are to self-isolate. Please reassure the staff that they do NOT have to self-isolate at this time being that this is part of sentinel testing and [they] are not considered a close contact of the case," the memo states.
The estimated 75 teachers have been working out of the closed school for two days, providing distance learning for students.
They were told they were "expected" to teach from the school, another internal memo shows, even though they've been set up to teach from home for months.
The Department of Education spent $5 million on school IT infrastructure to support blended or virtual learning for the 2020-21 school year, a spokesperson confirmed to CBC News on Friday. As well, $800,000 was used to purchase 1,035 new laptops for teachers as part of an annual laptop refresh program.
A closed school is supposed to become a testing site for school staff, Education Minister Dominic Cardy had said Sunday.
It's unclear why no testing is being done at Riverview High.
Asked Friday afternoon why there was a delay in testing teachers who had been ordered to report to a building where there was a positive case, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell said "those would be things that would be worked out" at the regional level.
"With respect to being in an environment where there may or may not have been a case, obviously the person who tested positive, whether it was a student or staff, is now self-isolating at home, and if people are following Public Health guidance and remaining six feet apart, and wearing their mask, and disinfecting, and following all the protocols, then going to that environment to await testing and do the work that [the Department of Education] is expecting of them — again, that is part of the operational plan at this moment in time and the operationalization of that would be done at the regional level with our regional team."
No rationale for teaching from closed school, says union
The teachers union says it came as a surprise to them that teachers were expected to provide online learning from a school in the red zone that's closed because of a positive coronavirus case.
"We certainly haven't heard a rationale as to why it should be," said Rick Cuming, co-president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Federation and president of the New Brunswick Teachers Association.
The directive came from the Department of Education, as well as the Department of Finance and Treasury Board, which makes decisions about public-sector unions, he said.
"Our position is that teachers can indeed work from home in these situations. But the department and Treasury Board don't agree with that position."
Cuming argues there's no reason teachers should have to report to a building that's being deep-cleaned, stand in line to use the washroom and "worry about using a common area to heat their lunch."
"It's just going to heighten the exposure," he said. "[I'm] not saying it's dangerous, but it may increase any risk that's there."
It's also going to add to their stress, said Cuming, who estimates he personally received at least 150 emails in two days from teachers across New Brunswick who are concerned about the recent changes.
The federation and association intend to continue to try to persuade the government to reverse the changes, he said.
'Always been the expectation,' says government spokesperson
But Department of Education spokesperson Tara Chislett said "there has always been the expectation that teachers will report to schools to work, even if students are learning from home," as part of planning for red alert levels.
She did not respond to a late afternoon request to provide any documentation.
In the event of a confirmed case in a school — at any alert level — teachers may be asked to work from home to allow Public Health to complete contact tracing, said Chislett. "These situations are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, based on comprehensive risk assessments carried out by Public Health," she said in an emailed statement.
The Department of Education works closely with school districts, schools and Public Health in the rollout of outbreak management plans when a case is confirmed in a school, said Chislett. School and district staff will follow any advice that may be provided by regional Public Health authorities, she said.
Treasury Board spokesperson Jennifer Vienneau said she was unable to respond to a request for comment because of pre-budget consultations.
On Sunday, when the Education minister announced changes to keep K-12 schools open, even at the red alert level, he said if a positive case was confirmed at a school, the school would be closed for a minimum of three days to allow for contact tracing and that the school would become a testing site for school staff. But he made no mention of the requirement for teachers to teach from the closed schools.
The department's Changes in Directives for Early Learning and Childcare Facilities and Schools, dated Jan. 20 and posted online, makes no mention of the requirement either.
The chief medical officer of health has repeatedly urged people to stay home as much as possible to help get the second wave of the pandemic under control.
30 new cases, Edmundston lockdown Saturday
Russell announced 30 new cases on Friday, pushing the provincial total of active cases to 331. There are five people in hospital, three of whom are in intensive care.
The Edmundston region, Zone 4, will go into a full lockdown Saturday at midnight, said Russell, due to rising cases and spread in "several" workplaces and two special care homes, the Manoir Belle Vue and Le Pavillon Le Royer.
The Moncton region, Zone 1, Saint John region, Zone 2, and Fredericton region, Zone 3, remain at the red level, while the Campbellton region, Zone 5, Bathurst region, Zone 6, and Miramichi region, Zone 7, remain at the orange level.
But Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said the situation is constantly being reassessed. "We will be meeting with Public Health in the days ahead, and if the numbers are trending in the right direction, we may be able to move at least Zone 2, the Saint John region, and Zone 3, the Fredericton region, back to orange."