BC latest province to delay school reopening due to increase in COVID-19 cases

The BC government says students will return to school on January 10th.JENNIFER GAUTHIER / Reuters

British Columbia will extend the holiday break for its students amid a rapid rise in COVID-19 infections – the first time the province has kept its classrooms closed to most children since schools across the country closed in the spring of 2020.

The government said on Wednesday that all students will start school on January 10, except children of essential workers and those in need of extra support who can attend next week.

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said personal learning was beneficial to students’ academic and social development, but it was also important to reopen safely.

“Our efforts are really focused on working to reduce disruption and reduce absenteeism in our schools,” she said at a news conference Wednesday, adding: “Now we are taking a few extra days … we are setting our schools up for the best possible start. “

BC’s decision to extend the break was similar to that in Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, as cases grow across the country, driven by the Omicron variant. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador said Wednesday that students would move online next week and that the decision would be reconsidered on a weekly basis. Ontario and Alberta are expected to announce their decision this week on whether schools will reopen as planned.

Nova Scotia delays student return, Ontario school announcement comes on COVID-19 measures

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Doctors, parents and educators are increasingly disagreeing on keeping schools open as the virus spreads faster. Governments and public health officials have said it is important for children to be in classrooms, citing the mental and emotional strain that school disruptions have had on students during the pandemic.

The challenge for officials is to weigh the risk of the virus, which is often relatively mild in children, and the damage caused by lack of school time.

The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation had asked the province to postpone the start of the winter period as COVID-19 cases rise. The Omicron variant has “changed the pandemic,” the federation said in a series of tweets, making recommendations on how to safely reopen schools, which included providing free N95 masks to staff and students.

Jennifer Kwan, a family physician in Ontario who helped found the advocacy group Masks4Canada, said schools should remain open with measures that include quality masks, improved ventilation and regular access to rapid testing.

“Schools are essential,” said Dr. Kwan, “and should have precedence over non-essential high-risk activities and venues.”

However, some doctors wondered if there should be some respite before students return to the classrooms after the holidays.

Anna Banerji, specialist in infectious diseases and pediatrician at St. Joseph’s Health Center of Unity Health Toronto, said that even though she does not want children to drop out of school, there is a risk of cases popping up after children return to school buildings after holiday gatherings, causing more disruption in learning and potentially leading to school closures.

“Adding one or two extra weeks – and during that time the kids will be home, whether they go to virtual school or not – will save a lot of headaches in the end,” said Dr. Banners.

School board officials have also expressed concern about how they will run schools whose infections continue to rise and staff are in isolation after being exposed to the virus. In previous waves of the pandemic, schools have been closed due to operational challenges.

As Omicron is highly transferable, school administrators in Alberta have shared their concerns about staff with the provincial government, said Trisha Estabrooks, president of the Edmonton Public Schools. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control has recommended a shorter isolation period for people with COVID-19, decreasing to five days from 10, as long as they are asymptomatic. Quebec, Ontario and Alberta have said they are examining this recommendation.

“We will face a shortage of staff right from the start,” Ms. Estabrooks. “We need a better plan here in Alberta for schools.”

Tess Clifford, a psychologist and parent in Kingston, expressed frustration that governments and public health officials were again discussing moving children to a virtual learning environment. She said the school is not only beneficial to the students but parents need children in the classrooms so that they are also able to work.

“I can not believe this is on the table,” she said. “There have been so many experts and educators and research showing that school closure harms children.”

Prachi Srivastava, an associate professor of education and global development at the University of Western Ontario in London, reiterated the sentiment.

“This is the third year of disorders. There are consequences beyond learning – in the form of socialization, in the form of routine, in the form of structure,” said Prof. Srivastava.

She worried that governments have not considered how to help students overcome learning gaps after months of unrest, whether it be through curriculum changes or adding another year to school.

“If we’re going to have extended closures … we have to work on a medium- and long-term level,” she said. “What are we doing to meet the educational needs of young people?”

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