Alberta students in kindergarten to Grade 12 will have an extended winter break as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the province, fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Students will return to in-person learning on Jan. 10, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange told a news conference Thursday evening.
January diploma exams, which were set to begin on Jan. 11, have been cancelled, LaGrange said.
School was to begin in Edmonton and Calgary on Jan. 3 or 4, depending on the board. LaGrange said education leaders told her they needed more time to prepare and assess the current COVID-19 situation.
“Schools are expecting a high number of student absences, making it harder for teachers to manage in-person and at-home learning at the same time, and with students and staff still on holidays it’s very hard for anyone at this time to fully assess what the situation for schools may look like,” she said.
LaGrange said she wanted to share the updated plan as soon as possible.
“I’m confident that this additional time to plan will position school authorities for a successful startup,” she said.
There were 23 schools with active cases before the break, though there isn’t a “clear line of sight” on the current numbers, LaGrange said. Knowing the exact number is more difficult with many testing positive on rapid tests that aren’t reflected in the province’s COVID-19 numbers, she said.
Rapid test kits, medical masks
The province will also be providing an additional 8.6 million rapid tests for students and staff, LaGrange announced.
The province has also offered 16.5 million medical-grade masks for staff and students for the return to in-person learning.
LaGrange said she will provide another update late next week.
Several other provinces have delayed the return to class or moved to online learning, in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant.
There were an estimated 4,000 cases of COVID-19 reported in Alberta on Thursday, shattering the previous daily record of 2,775 cases set on Wednesday.
Some parents who spoke to CBC before Thursday’s news conference were hoping the province would increase COVID-19 precautions at schools as case numbers across Alberta soar.
“Please, we beg of you – do something,” said Fraser Porter, whose son is in Grade 2 at Oliver School in downtown Edmonton.
Porter is the chairperson for the school’s parent council, and said that the existing cloth masks and the daily symptom checklist just aren’t going to cut it with Omicron spreading.
“It’s not acceptable to just walk into this without deploying additional resources and technologies to protect our families and our schools,” she said.
She said her council wants to see more rapid testing and better air filtration in schools, as well as smaller class sizes and more staff.
“They need to act before we return to school, not react after we have thousands of infections among young, vulnerable children,” she said, adding that teachers and support staff are also at risk.
Porter said if the government doesn’t announce new measures to address the spread of COVID-19 in schools, it leaves parents in a terrible situation.
“I am uncomfortable sending my child to school, but what am I to do? I have to work, I can’t take an extended leave of absence from my job – they need me too. We’re caught between two worlds,” she said.
Brandi Rai, president of the Alberta School Councils Association, has been hearing from many parents torn about what to do. She said the lack of information is frustrating.
“If we had information then we could make better decisions for our children, and we don’t have that right now,” she said. “I think that the chief medical officer of health should release any modelling she has access to, any data that she has access to, along with her recommendations that she has given to the COVID cabinet.”
Rai said some parents want to see a shift to online learning, others want higher quality masks and better filtration systems in classrooms. She also hears from families who are worried about the variant but who need in-person schooling.
She said if learning is going to be disrupted, action is needed now. She said better masks and air quality measures must be supplied to schools to protect students and staff.
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