On Monday, April 12, high school students in parts of New Brunswick will return to in-class learning full-time amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The first day of school can often carry with it seeds of anxiety, and that’s no different this time, even if that anxiety takes a somewhat different form.
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Tricia Smith’s daughter Natalie is a Grade 10 student at Riverview High.
“Today she went to school, it was the first day where all the desks are back in the classroom and she messaged me right off the bat saying ‘Mom, I’m claustrophobic just with the desks in here, I have no idea how I’m going to feel Monday,”” Smith said.
Smith says there is trust in public health to keep people safe, but the increase in contacts is still leaving Natalie ill at ease.
“I don’t know if there’s a fear there that someone’s going to get sick, but its now going from literally this bubble that we’ve been in for a year and now all of a sudden that bubble just explodes.”
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Not all high school students will back in class on Monday. In some areas delays to COVID-19 vaccination appointments have pushed the change by a week and in the Edmundston region, which remains at the red level, blended learning will continue.
But with variants now driving the spread of the virus in that area there are concerns from teachers, who think students shouldn’t be there in person at all.
“The safest method to deliver curriculum to students is remotely in a red zone,” said Rick Cuming, co-president of the New Brunswick Teachers Federation.
Cuming says the seemingly ever-changing protocols are impacting teacher trust in decision-makers. When Edmundston transitioned to red during a previous outbreak, the alert level was changed to keep schools open, a decision widely criticized at the time.
“At this point, the concerns of teachers are not being taken into account when decisions are made,” Cuming said.
For now, teachers are mostly comfortable with the return to in-class learning outside of red zones, but worry about the risks that variants pose considering how fast outbreaks can get out of control.
Under current guidelines, schools will transition to blended learning should their zone revert to red, but Cuming said the presence of variants in the province is still cause for concern.
“We’re seeing outbreaks that are happening very quickly, so if ones aren’t going to transition very, very quickly into red zones, that’s where teachers are concerned,” he said.
Education minister Dominic Cardy has appeared to voice some concerns as well. Cardy took to Twitter this week directing concerned parents to public health.
“It was a strong recommendation from Public Health. Please contact them to share your concerns – I have,” he wrote in reply to one Twitter user.
New Brunswick parents, teachers unions express concern over open schools in ‘red’ zones
Cardy was not made available for interview on Friday.
“As minister of education and early childhood development, the health and safety of New Brunswick’s students is always my prime concern, in every decision,” he said in an emailed statement.
“The pandemic situation is ever evolving, particularly considering the recent trends of the variants of concern in other jurisdictions. While I understand the benefits of in-person learning and that many families want to return full-time as quickly as possible, I naturally had questions and concerns about the impacts on our students and staff.”
As the situation currently stands, many students will be back in class together on Monday, but Smith is left with a lingering question: with so little time left in the school year, why move away from what’s worked up until this point?
“Why are we doing it? Why are we going back in the middle of April when we may get six, seven weeks of that, why not just finish the school year doing what we’re doing and come back fresh in September,” she said.
“What is the point of sending them back now?”
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