In light of increasing COVID-19 cases and the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, Alberta is extending students’ winter vacations across the province, and children in kindergarten to 12th grade will not return to class until January 10th.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced Thursday night after a COVID-19 cabinet meeting. She said the decision was “just finished” and she wanted to share the news with Albertans as soon as possible.
LaGrange said education department officials spoke to school officials during the winter break and heard they were concerned about staffing challenges, not only with teaching staff but also staff such as bus drivers, parental authorities and administrative workers.
“They are concerned about the rapid rise of the Omicron variant and the impact on our schools,” LaGrange said.
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She said schools expect a lot of absenteeism and are concerned about being able to handle personal and online learning.
“The school authorities have told us that they need more time to prepare … and understand what Omicron means for their operations,” LaGrange said.
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An update on the next steps, including additional rapid tests and medical masks, will take place next week.
As of January 10, schools in Alberta will be provided with 8.6 million rapid COVID-19 tests, LaGrange said.
“That means two, five test kits for every student and employee across the entire education system.”
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LaGrange said 16.5 million medical-grade masks will also be delivered to staff and students.
“We are also canceling the January diploma exam, which was scheduled to begin on January 11,” she said.
LaGrange said, at this point, it’s all the changes the government is making to personal learning.
“The Cabinet Committee is meeting at the moment and Dr. Hinshaw will talk about other possible measures tomorrow,” she added.
LaGrange reiterated that as the pandemic develops, so must the province’s response. She said Ministry of Education officials would speak to school boards as soon as Thursday night and would be available at the weekend to answer questions.
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The minister acknowledged that this news will be tough for parents who will have to make plans for an extra week at home with their children.
“In very challenging circumstances, I am very grateful to parents, students, teachers and education partners for their resilience and flexibility.”
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She said the decision was made “very, very seriously” and the Cabinet Committee had “a lot of discussion” about how this change would affect staff shortages in other industries as some parents might stay home with their children instead of going into occupation.
“But again, we feel very strongly that we need to ensure that our schools are well positioned for success, that we have everything in place when we bring our students back to personal learning.
“And right now we feel we need to add the extra goals for the quick tests and the masks. So it’s a decision that was made based on all that context.
“We recognize that it will create some challenges for certain parents and certain families, and I regret that. But unfortunately, Omicron has given us this circumstance.”
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Earlier Thursday, the Ontario government pushed the school start back to January 5, 2022. This province also introduced capacity restrictions for large venues as it struggles to control the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Most classes in Ontario were previously scheduled to resume after the winter break on Monday, but it has been pushed back two days to Wednesday to give schools time to prepare.
BC is also postponing the start of personal schooling until January 10 for most kindergarten to 12th grade students.
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Alberta Health announced Thursday that about 4,000 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed within the last 24 hours out of about 13,000 tests. That is a big leap compared to the record-breaking 2,775 new cases reported on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Alberta’s positivity was around 30 per cent.
About 21,000 active cases were reported.
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The opposition is happy that the return to teaching has been delayed and diploma exams canceled.
But NDP deputy chief Sarah Hoffman said the UCP government still has no plan to address Omicron or properly staff schools.
“We also need a plan to strengthen PPE in schools. Teachers need N-95 masks,” she said. “The minister did not commit to N95s and that should happen first.”
Hoffman also said schools need HEPA filters and air filtration systems.
NDP also wants to see funding for schools to meet these needs as well as funding for families for homeschooling and emergency child care.
Hoffman said the UCP government waited too long to act, describing the lack of planning as “incompetent management.”
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