The safest way to protect unvaccinated schoolchildren against COVID-19 this year is to make sure the older members of their households have had their two shots, New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health says.
"The transmission in that age group happens usually within households," Dr. Jennifer Russell said Thursday of the COVID cases reported so far among children.
And the greater the number of fully vaccinated New Brunswickers, the greater the protection against the disease for schoolchildren under the age of 12.
"We've always talked about protecting the health-care system in the pandemic, and that continues to be a goal," Russell said. "But the other thing that we really need to protect is the education system and the ability for our children to learn."
Questions came fast and furious for Russell and Education Minister Dominic Cardy during a CBC New Brunswick Facebook live session with parents and others about New Brunswick's back-to-school plan.
And a lot of the answers boiled down to one message: if you're eligible, get vaccinated.
"I really hope that everyone gets their vaccine," Cardy said during the 45-minute Q&A event.
"This is the only way to get out of this pandemic."
Many questions focused on the logic behind the policies put in place for the school year, such as why students have to wear masks in common areas and not inside the classroom.
This is to make it easier for Public Health to do contact tracing inside a school with a case of COVID-19 and minimize the spread of the virus.
Contract tracing was key to getting New Brunswick through the school year last year in better shape than other provinces, Cardy said. Across the entire system, only 28 school days were lost because of COVID cases.
"Our process of contact tracing allowed us to be much more nimble," he said.
With COVID cases rising in the province, however, Cardy was asked why the rules have eased in the public school system.
He argued the rules affecting the return to school are stricter than when classes finished in June. Provincial employees, including teachers and school staff, for instance, have to be fully vaccinated or undergo regular testing.
"If there's a single case in a school, that school will move to online learning because [the delta variant] is that much more transmissible and more infectious," he said.
For confidentiality reasons, Russell said Public Health doesn't break down new case reports to show how many in the under-19 age group are children under 12.
She didn't know how many children under 12 had been diagnosed with the disease so far, but said "if there's a way to look at that we will," she said.
For transparency's sake, Cardy was pleased at the possibility of having that information available to the public. He said it would also help the public follow Public Health guidelines.
Children under 12 are not yet able to get vaccinated, but Cardy said he hoped vaccines for them would be approved by the end of the year or early 2022.
Are students falling behind during COVID-19?
The province has received "spotty information" surrounding students' academic success during the pandemic, and said further results are expected in the first few weeks of the school year, Cardy said.
When teachers report on the gaps they're seeing, whether on the academic side or in mental health, the province will respond, he said.
But New Brunswick schools fared better in general than most schools elsewhere during the pandemic, managing to offer classes all of last year, he said.
"The fact that we were able to stay broadly open is a major credit to our teaching staff," Cardy said.
He defended the continued curriculum focus on certain core subjects, even though things are supposed to be normal now.
"That focus on the core elements of learning — literacy, numeracy — if you don't have those, nothing else matters."
Cardy said it's up to teachers to monitor how their students are doing, particularly when it comes to mental health. He said the province would spend millions of dollars to implement resources such as counselling services for students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Enforcing mask rules
Cardy reiterated that teachers and staff are responsible for making sure students wear their masks in common areas, such as public school buses.
Meanwhile, school administration is required to make sure teachers and staff are also following the rules.
"It's a job requirement, I can't be more blunt than that," he said.
However, bus drivers who have received both shots of a COVID-19 vaccine aren't required to wear masks.
Cardy said that's because masked bus drivers who wear glasses have trouble seeing in the winter, when their glasses fog up.
"It was really a question around safety issues for the bus drivers," he said.
But important to maintain a protective bubble around the drivers, so they will be behind a curtain or plexiglass shield on the bus, Cardy said.
Daycares not under provincial rules
Questions also poured in about why daycares don't require masks or employees to be vaccinated.
Cardy said daycare owners are free to make their own decisions about masks and vaccines, just as private businesses do.
"They're not part of the public school system," Cardy said. "They're private businesses."
Russell said if parents have a good relationship with their kids' daycare centres, they should ask questions about precautions being taken.
In the next week or so, a document on helping daycare centres work through COVID will be coming out, Cardy said.
Sending kids to the exhibition in Fredericton
Questions also came up about the New Brunswick Provincial Exhibition, likely to tempt many children under the age of 12 when it opens this week.
New Brunswick is in the green phase of COVID-19 recovery, so the choice of whether to attend and the precautions to take are up to individuals, Russell said
While some people might choose to attend wearing a mask, others might decide to stay home this year.
She also referred people to a resource called Living with COVID, on the government of New Brunswick website, which includes information about aspects of the green phase.
"We're trying to have as much of a normal life as possible," she said.