The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development has no plans to undertake its own after-action review of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a deputy minister, despite the urging of the auditor general.
But Julie Beaulieu Mason, the deputy minister for the francophone sector, did not rule out the possibility.
She told a legislative committee Thursday that the department will first participate in the comprehensive after-action review being led by the Executive Council Office. "Because there are some learnings that we can take across the board.
"Following that, there may be a desire to do an exercise specific to EECD and with the districts," Beaulieu Mason said in response to questions from Francine Landry, the Liberal MLA for Madawaska Les Lacs-Edmundston.
"But starting with the overarching at least won't create duplication of effort," she said.
Francine Landry, the Liberal MLA for Madawaska Les Lacs-Edmundston, told reporters she was 'a little surprised' to hear there's no review specific to the education department being done. (Ed Hunter/CBC)
"So we'll start with that, see what comes out and then identify if we have a need to dig deeper in, in terms of what went on specific to the education sector."
Beaulieu Mason and Ryan Donaghy, the deputy minister for the anglophone sector, fielded nearly six hours of questions from the legislature's standing committee on public accounts about the recent audit of the department's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In December, Auditor General Paul Martin concluded the department "responded effectively" to the COVID-19 pandemic by continuing to provide public education to the roughly 100,000 K-12 students enrolled in the anglophone and francophone sectors and by protecting their health and safety.
'Opportunities for improvement'
But he found "opportunities for improvement" in the areas of planning, training and communication, to better prepare the education system should future disruptions occur.
For example, the department did not "ensure updated pandemic plans were in place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic," he said, and did not "ensure emergency management training was provided" to staff.
Virtual learning training provided to teachers at the district level was ad hoc, and the teachers, in turn, had to train students in how the technology worked, he said.
Martin made five recommendations and the department agreed with all of them. Among them was that the department "ensure a comprehensive after-action review is completed to identify areas for improvement."
"I believe there is a need for them to do their own review, specific to their department," Martin told the legislative committee at the time.
"I'm hopeful they will do it."
No provisions for long COVID
Landry told reporters she was "a little surprised" to hear there's no education-specific review being conducted.
But she was "most surprised" to hear about the lack of action regarding the after-effects of the pandemic, she said, referring to compensation for employees suffering from long COVID.
Landry asked the deputy ministers whether there's anything in place or planned to address long COVID among teachers or other staff. "There is nothing at the workers' compensation level," she said.
Donaghy said the department must work within the confines of the collective agreement, as far as sick leave provisions and disability benefits. There's nothing specific to long COVID, he said.
"So it's not a recognized disease?" asked Landry in French.
We have not received anything from Public Health directing us to do differently for people who are sick on the long term. - Julie Beaulieu Mason, deputy education minister , francophone sector
Beaulieu Mason replied that would be a question better put to Public Health.
"Up until now, we have not received anything from Public Health directing us to do differently for people who are sick on the long term," she said in French.
For now, sick employees would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, according to their symptoms, said Beaulieu Mason. "Then we accommodate them with the different types of leaves that they are entitled to, according to the collective agreement."
Should be preparing for future emergencies
During a committee recess, Megan Mitton, the Green MLA for Memramcook-Tantramar, told reporters she didn't hear much about pandemic preparedness happening within the education department, or across government.
"What I hear the education officials talking about is more so reacting to some of the things that happened because of the pandemic around sort of learning and mental health and trying to respond to those types of things," she said.
"But I think that, just like how we weren't prepared enough for COVID — even though we've been through other, you know, contagious diseases, we need to learn our lessons, already. There's going to be other issues, so we can do better and should use this time to get ready."
Green MLA Megan Mitton asked questions covering a range of topics, including school buses and drivers, virtual training and learning, school air quality, systemic racism and daycare spaces. (Ed Hunter/CBC)
The auditor general recommended that the education department ensure a business continuity plan is kept up to date, reflects the specific educational needs for potential long-term emergencies (including pandemics) and is periodically tested according to a predefined schedule.
In addition, the department should ensure a communications plan is in place for similar future emergencies, and that it incorporate lessons learned, he said.
Concerns about school air quality testing
Mitton, health critic for the Green Party, also raised concerns about air quality testing in schools.
She's worried about the carbon dioxide levels deemed acceptable — 1,500 parts per million (ppm) — because high levels can indicate the air isn't being exchanged very well. This creates a higher risk of respiratory illnesses, as well as dizziness, headaches, tiredness and difficulty concentrating, she said, arguing it can happen if levels are above 1,000 ppm.
Donaghy said the department is relying on experts at WorkSafeNB to determine acceptable CO2 levels. "If the guidance changed someday then we would certainly readjust our plans in accordance," he said.
Mitton also questioned whether more schools should be tested more often.
Ryan Donaghy, the deputy minister of education for the anglophone sector, said the department has faced some delays installing new mechanical ventilation systems in schools due to equipment and labour shortages. Eleven schools are now in various stages of design and construction and Beaulieu Mason said the design phase has started for 12 additional schools. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)
Donaghy said some schools are getting new mechanical ventilation systems that can test automatically and the department will look at those results annually.
"When we put in a system, if it doesn't have that capability, we are testing that first year to make sure that the results are what was intended. And then once it's working appropriately, there's no need to to go in and test unless there is an issue, in which case there would be a request to go in and test," he said.
Mitton suggested retesting only when a clear problem is identified could be a problem. Without regular monitoring, a problem could develop and go unnoticed, she said.
Martin's other recommendations were that the department ensure:
Consistent, appropriate virtual learning training is provided to district staff. This has been implemented, the committee heard.
Adequate training is provided to staff identified with key roles and responsibilities in business continuity plans according to a predefined schedule. Appropriate training is to be included in staff training plans this year, according to officials.
Martin's audit covered from March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, until March 14, 2022, when the province lifted emergency restrictions for the second time.