The opposition Liberals want the Higgs government to send high school students back to classes full time, despite having originally supported the "blended learning" pandemic model now in place because of COVID-19.
Liberal education critic Benoit Bourque says he believes hundreds or even thousands of high school students could be suffering from mental health issues or other challenges because they only get to go to school every second day.
"Many students are in a precarious state within the school system," Bourque said Wednesday during the first Question Period of the new legislative session.
"I don't think they benefit from staying at home. How can they benefit from staying at home?"
Premier Blaine Higgs and Education Minister Dominic Cardy both said the all-party COVID-19 committee, which includes the Liberals, was consulted on the model before it was adopted.
To reduce the risk of the spread of the virus by limiting student contact, the province created a "bubble system" for children in kindergarten to Grade 8 and a "blended learning" system for high schoolers, who attend class in person every second day and learn online at home on other days.
Other jurisdictions didn't follow our example? You know what? We are leading the world in our response to COVID-19. - Education Minister Dominic Cardy
Cardy says the high school system is not ideal but it was the best compromise available to allow students to take different courses, rather than forcing all of them to all study the same subjects in bubbles.
Bourque said other provinces haven't adopted the alternating-days system, but Cardy pointed out that many of them have exploding case numbers, while New Brunswick's are relatively low.
"Other jurisdictions didn't follow our example? You know what? We are leading the world in our response to COVID-19," he said. "We are being seen as a global example."
Results so far show system is working: Cardy
On Wednesday, two international news organizations, the New York Times and Bloomberg News, carried reports on the low case numbers in the Atlantic bubble.
"Certainly we're going to continue to look at the system and how it rolls out, but so far, New Brunswick's record on the front line of the Atlantic bubble, helping to protect the bubble from this pandemic, shows the results, shows it's working," Cardy said in Question Period.
Speaking to reporters, Cardy said there's no clear cause-and-effect link between the blended learning system itself and the case numbers.
"This is one of our many COVID protection measures that we put in place," he said. "We have no way of measuring, at this point yet, anything other than that our numbers speak for themselves, and so far they've been positive."
Bourque responded: "I'm afraid that we will also be leading the pack with mental health issues in our student population."
The Liberal MLA took on the role of education critic after September's election. He said he was not aware whether his party had endorsed the blended-learning model earlier this year.
"I do feel that the position of my party as it currently stands [is] we have reason to be worried about the precariousness of so many high school students within the current way the system is carried out as of now," he said.
Call came before 9 new cases reported
Bourque's call for full attendance, and Cardy's invoking of New Brunswick's relative success fighting COVID-19, came a few hours before Public Health reported nine new cases in the province.
It was the seventh consecutive day of increases in the number of active cases in New Brunswick.
Bourque said he raised the issue Wednesday because it was the first chance to bring it up in the legislature. "I wasn't looking at the number of cases yesterday or the day before or last week," he said.
Cardy said mental-health challenges for some students "is something that we knew was going to be an important side-effect of this model," and teachers and staff are monitoring those effects to make sure students get the help they need.
He also invited New Brunswickers to send him feedback on what is working and what isn't.
Bourque said more resources would help "but I don't think it's enough," and repeated that a full return to regular class schedules should happen.
Not ruling out a full return to classes later in year
Both Cardy and Higgs wouldn't rule that out if things get better later in the school year.
"I think every day is a learning experience and we just keep moving closer and closer to life with COVID as normal as we can possibly make it," Higgs said.
People's Alliance leader Kris Austin said he's "not a big fan" of the system. "It never made sense to me, to be honest."
He said his own 15-year-son is going to high school on alternating days and while in-person days are fine, "trying to keep him motivated and moving with his school work" is a challenge when he's home learning online.
Green Party education critic Megan Mitton said the province needs to listen to parents, teachers and students "now that we've had a couple of months of school, to see what does need to be changed at this point."
She said some students are still having problems with access to technology or reliable internet they need for the online learning part of the system.