Classes will resume for all students in the province Monday with “enhanced protocols” to keep kids safe from COVID-19, B.C.’s top doctor and education minister said Friday.
The province is moving ahead with its delayed start of Jan. 10 despite a record-high surge in COVID-19 cases fuelled primarily by the more easily transmissible Omicron variant.’
“It is essential and it’s a priority for all of us that we keep schools open and functioning for our children,” said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Henry during Friday’s press conference.
“It’s important to remember that the structured settings that we have in school have been proven to be places where they can learn and interact with others…in a way that is safe for everybody in that setting and safer than many of the unstructured settings that children are in outside of that unstructured environment.”
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said that a steering committee has been taking the additional week to implement additional safety measures and policies to ensure a safe return to class Monday.
Those measures include the provision of three-layer disposable masks, measures to reduce crowding such as virtual assemblies and staff meetings, staggered break times and restriction of visitors.
Students will also be provided with a refresher on the importance of mask etiquette.
Whiteside also reiterated that due to the fast spread of Omicron, contact tracing is no longer a helpful option in tracking cases and instand, schools will monitor attendance rates and notify the community and health officials if rates dip.
If they do, that will trigger a response from public health officials that could include additional measures, and could involve a return to at-home learning for some students.
“We have really focused on ensuring we can continue to keep kids connected to in-person learning during this pandemic,” said Whiteside.
Rapid tests will also be prioritized for use on school staff showing symptoms of COVID-19, Henry said.
A new shipment of tests are expected to start arriving from the federal government soon and can also be used for students who have COVID-19 symptoms, she said.
Meanwhile the head of the BC Teachers’ Federation says the measures don’t go far enough. Teri Mooring says her members want to see an increased push to vaccinate school-aged children, teachers prioritized for boosters, ventilation improved and N95 masks made available.
“We have medically vulnerable teachers and medically vulnerable students and we also want them to be able to fully access both work and school and so we think N95’s are a small step that could add to the layers of protection.”
Earlier this week, Henry told businesses and schools to prepare to lose up to one-third of their workforces in the month of January due to the fast-spreading variant.
Henry also announced a new order Friday requiring B.C. businesses to have a COVID-19 safety plan.
The order is specific to industry and businesses and does not apply to child care, post-secondary of K-12 facilities where additional plans are already in place.
Plans include measures like barriers, reduced crowding, reduced mixing of staff, working from home where possible and ensuring that workers stay at home if they’re sick, she said.
More to come. This is a developing story. Original story follows.
Provincial health officer Doctor Bonnie Henry, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside are expected to make an announcement later today about COVID-19 testing and schools.
Henry, Dix and Whiteside will deliver their comments at 11:30 a.m. CHEK News will stream the event live here and on CHEK+.
The return to school for most B.C. students was delayed to Monday, Jan. 10 due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant leading to surging case counts.
In a letter to parents Thursday, Saanich School District Superintendent Dave Eberwein indicated schools will still reopen for all students on Monday.
Eberwein reiterated that Henry recently said businesses and schools could see one-third of their work force away “at any particularly time during the month of January” due to the Omicron variant, and said that level of absenteeism would require schools to potentially close “for a period of time.”
He said the district would receive an order from Island Health to temporarily close, and upon doing so would move to temporary remote learning.
“I realize that this new path forward is fraught with uncertainty. However, it is highly likely that our community will see significant effects from Omicron with many businesses and operations being impacted,” wrote Eberwein. “By providing you with the above information, our hope is that it gives you some time to make alternate plans should we not be able to keep a school open.”
The province reported 3,223 new COVID-19 cases Thursday along with three new deaths, 324 hospitalizations and 90 people in critical care.
B.C. also recorded 16 new COVID-19 outbreaks at health-care facilities, including several in Island Health, for a total of 37 active outbreaks.
The ministry says many of the outbreaks are in seniors’ care facilities.
Within the Island Health region, there is currently a total of 3,765 active COVID-19 cases — the highest it has ever been over the course of the pandemic.