The Department of Education says students and school staff who are COVID-19-positive should stay home, even after the province lifts isolation requirements, along with all other COVID restrictions, next week.
The department clarified its position Tuesday after a graphic issued by the Anglophone South School District, offering parents guidance on when children are too sick for school, created some confusion.
The graphic, which was created pre-pandemic but included as part of an email to parents March 4, tells them they can send their children to school if they have “a runny nose or just a little cough, but no other symptoms.”
Chris Small, whose five-year-old daughter attends kindergarten in the greater Saint John area, posted the graphic on Twitter.
“Is your child COVID positive? Is your child displaying symptoms such as coughing and runny nose? Has you child not yet developed a fever? Congratulations! Your child is eligible for unmasked schooling where they can delight in transmitting a deadly disease to their friends! !!!!!” he tweeted.
Small told CBC he assumes school districts are acting in the best interest of students and staff and want to reduce transmission in schools as much as possible, but the Anglophone South School District graphic “doesn’t state that.”
“It very much implies that a COVID-positive kid should come to school so long as they only have those, you know, what you might call a minor symptom.”
The messaging needs to be clear, Small said.
“If they intend to have COVID-positive kids stay home, they should just say that,” he said.
“I don’t know if that is the intention, though, because they also state in their messaging that attendance is important.”
Is your child covid positive?
Is your child displaying symptoms such as coughing and runny nose?
Has you child not yet developed a fever?
Congratulations! Your child is eligible for unmasked schooling where they can delight in transmitting a deadly disease to their friends!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/30HMRT9uY4
Department spokesperson Flavio Nienow reiterated that the lifting of restrictions on March 14 means New Brunswickers, including students and school staff, will no longer be required to isolate if they test positive for COVID-19.
“However, as always, students and school personnel are encouraged to stay home when they are sick to prevent the spread of communicable diseases in schools, including COVID-19,” he said in an emailed statement.
“Public Health is still recommending students and staff continue to test for COVID-19 if they have symptoms and stay at home if symptomatic and positive.
“When COVID-positive, any citizen should stay at home as much as possible until they are feeling better and have had no fever for 24 hours,” he added.
Small contends it’s premature to lift COVID-19 restrictions in schools since COVID cases in the school population have been “rampant.”
There have been 12,889 cases reported at schools since the beginning of the school year — more than 10,400 of them in the past month, the department’s website, which has been discontinued, shows. Small calls those “some pretty frightening numbers.”
It’s “nerve-wracking enough” to know COVID measures are being dropped, he said, but even more so knowing that for some parents, the Anglophone South School District graphic, which uses a pre-pandemic “yardstick” to offer general guidance, might be their only source of information.
“If anybody is symptomatic to the point of runny nose or a cough in the pandemic, when they’re in a room with 14 or 20 other children, the likelihood is that everybody in that room is going to contract COVID,” said Small, who is an engineer.
“That’s pretty upsetting to a parent.”
Although his daughter is double vaccinated, “we know from all the pressers from Public Health, the two doses don’t do a lot to protect people from the most recent variants. You know, they’re going to help, but they’re definitely not going to prevent transmission.”
And while many cases in children have been mild, they could bring the virus home to someone who is vulnerable, or their parents could bring it to work, where someone is vulnerable, Small said.
Some children in the province have been hospitalized in recent months and the long-term effects of COVID remain unclear, he added.
Zoë Watson, superintendent of the Anglophone South School District, said with provincial COVID restrictions being lifted next Monday, “there are no longer guidelines from the Department of Education or Public Health regarding when children should be kept home.
“It is important that families understand that we cannot enforce isolation rules, but we still encourage families to keep their child home if they are sick,” she said in an emailed statement.
“We now have to rely on families to take personal responsibility for keeping their child home when it is necessary and hope that that would absolutely include if their child has or is suspected to have COVID-19.”
The general guidance graphic was shared to help families make that decision, she said.
It’s “not intended as encouragement to send a COVID-19 positive child to school.”
“We had hoped that this would be guidance in the wake of lifting restrictions, that families should still keep students home as appropriate. Instead some have chosen to interpret it as encouragement or permission to come when sick,” said Watson.
“We do not encourage students to come to school when feeling unwell.” She did not address how that aligns with advising that children who have a runny nose or cough can go to school, nor did she explain how the district defines a “little cough.”
Watson did point out that a symptom does not always mean someone has COVID. Meanwhile, someone can have COVID but be asymptomatic.
“Children have missed a great deal of time in the past two years and attendance is associated with academic achievement and social growth. We don’t want to see students miss more time than absolutely necessary, but as we mentioned with the graphic, ‘Isolation rules are no longer in place, however, as always, if your child is feeling unwell and displaying cold or flu-like symptoms, you should keep them home until they are feeling better.'”