FREDERICTON, N.B. — By John Chilibeck
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Gleaner
New Brunswick’s acting chief medical health officer was so concerned with the rise of respiratory viruses earlier this month he held a news conference — the first he’d hosted in months.
At the Jan. 9 presser, Dr. Yves Léger stressed the importance of flu and COVID vaccinations and to follow safe hygiene practices given the rise of RSV and Strep-A infections.
That week alone, five people in the province died from influenza and COVID, and six preschool children needed hospital treatment for the viruses, according to the province.
In the period just before that, between Dec. 10 and 30, a total of 26 New Brunswickers died from respiratory viruses, including a child under five.
And yet, a Jan. 12 letter Léger addressed to families of school communities talking about the steps people could take to safeguard themselves and others didn’t immediately go out to all schools.
The provincial government sent the letter to the school districts, which were responsible for distributing them. Some schools didn’t send them to parents right away.
École Sainte-Anne in Fredericton, for instance, sent the letter to parents Jan. 18 – six days after Léger had issued it. The school is part of Francophone South School District.
Likewise, Anglophone South School District reported that four of its schools sent the notice out late, while Anglophone North School District told Brunswick News it inadvertently sent the notice out to all its parents on Jan. 18, due to a technical problem.
Brunswick News asked the Health Department last week why the notice did not go to all parents promptly and at the same time, given it was based on the advice of the chief medical health officer, who has a duty to educate the public.
A response instead came from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. It said it was up to the school superintendents.
“The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development is asked from time to time to share information with families who have children in schools,” wrote spokesman Charles Renshaw. “On Jan. 12, the department was asked to distribute a memo from Dr. Yves Léger, acting Chief Medical Officer of Health, on respiratory illnesses. As per regular process, this memo was sent to the seven superintendents on Jan. 12. Questions regarding the distribution of this memo to families should be directed to the school districts.”
Consistent communication critical: Holt
Opposition critics said it was unacceptable that crucial public health advice was not coming out in a timely fashion.
“It’s hard to understand why important public health communication wouldn’t be sent to everybody at the same time, and made really accessible,” said Liberal Leader Susan Holt.
“The press conference wasn’t accessible to anybody but the media and only in certain formats. And now we have public health information sent to parents, but only certain parents at certain times. To me that underscores what we’ve been calling for consistently, which is better communications from Public Health.
“When we’re talking about kids that are dying and new diseases such as invasive Strep-A, it’s critical that New Brunswickers have this information put in front of them, through as many channels as possible, so we can protect each other.”
“It’s hard to understand why important public health communication wouldn’t be sent to everybody at the same time, and made really accessible.”
— Susan Holt
Holt has three children in Fredericton’s anglophone school system and she received the letter on Jan. 12. But she heard from plenty of parents who didn’t.
“I was getting Facebook messages, saying, “Did you get this? How come we didn’t get it? Whose school got it?’ Some parents couldn’t understand why some people were getting the information and they were not. Being in the dark is a really uncomfortable place to be.”
Megan Mitton, the Green party’s education critic, says her child’s elementary school in Sackville, part of Anglophone East School District, only sent her Léger’s letter on Jan. 17, five days after it had been issued.
“I was glad to finally see more communication coming from Public Health and raising the alarm bell about respiratory viruses that are going around right now. However, it’s unfortunate the information didn’t get where it needed to go in all cases. I know that schools followed Public Health directives during the pandemic, including communications, but it appears that there’s a gap in the plan outside of the pandemic that needs to be fixed.”
Anglophone East did not reply for comment. It was the only school district that did not respond to questions from Brunswick News.
Most other school districts told Brunswick News Tuesday they did their best to get the information out.
Paul MacIntosh, a spokesperson for Anglophone West School District, said the parents of the nearly 25,000 students in its region got the information right away.
“I sent it through our school messenger system to all families on Jan. 12,” he said in an interview.
“The only gaps would be if we don’t have everyone’s proper email address, which does happen. The onus is on parents to make sure that’s all up to date.”
MacIntosh said sending it out was a no-brainer.
“It was a request from Public Health to the Department of Education, which sent it to us. So of course, we didn’t hesitate.”
Many of the other school districts struggled to explain why the letter was sent late.
Jean-Luc Thériault, a spokesman for Francophone South School District, said his organization recognized the importance of public health memos.
“This is why we asked our 38 schools to send the information to their parents as soon as we received the memo from Public Health, on Jan. 12. It was also sent to all owners of French-speaking educational daycares in our region.
We also sent a reminder to our school principals last week to ensure that Dr. Léger’s note was sent to their parents.”
He did not immediately answer a follow-up question as to why École Sainte-Anne sent the note almost a week after the fact.
Anglophone North School District explained that it only sent the note from Léger on Jan. 18 -six days late -because it was inadvertently overlooked. The school district had received two communications from the Department of Education the same day, on different topics.
“In an oversight, the first message and attachment was not noticed and got folded in to the thread of related messages; that contained the memo to families from Dr. Léger,” said spokesperson Meredith Caissie.
“As soon as it was realized that there was another document to be shared, the letter was sent to all schools for distribution to families.”
Anglophone South School District sent the letter out over three different days.
“Of our 70 schools, all were sent between the 12th (a Friday) and the 15th (the Monday), with the exception of four schools who sent the memo during the week along with their weekly newsletter,” said spokeswoman Jessica Hanlon.
She didn’t respond to a follow-up question asking when those four schools sent their newsletter.
Brigitte Couturier, a spokeswoman for Francophone Northeast School District, said the memo was sent to families on Jan.12.
She said the letter was also published on the school district’s Facebook page, along with the Facebook pages of several schools.
Julie Poulin, the spokeswoman for Francophone Northwest School District, said the notice was sent to schools on Jan. 15.
“We requested that the memo be distributed to all parents,” she wrote. “We have no reason to believe that it wasn’t done.”