Back to school for the winter? Not so fast
While teachers and children of essential workers will go back to school next week, the vast majority will not return to class until Jan 10.
As post-secondary schools delay in-person learning until late January, all K-12 students will be back to school by Jan 10, the BC government has announced.
And teachers, along with some students, will be going back to class as planned on Jan 3 or 4 depending on their district. (In Burnaby, the return date is Jan 4.)
The decision came down from Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside on Wednesday, after the BC Teachers’ Federation called for in-person learning to be delayed.
BCTF president Teri Mooring called on Tuesday for K-12 education to be done online for the first week of the new semester.
That call followed decisions last week by post-secondary schools, including SFU, to shift to remote learning for the first couple of weeks. At SFU, lectures and seminars are to be held virtually from Jan 10-23.
Whiteside announced a phased approach to returning to K-12 in the new year. Between Jan 4 and Jan 7, the only ones returning to the classroom will be staff and a handful of children.
“Schools will be open for students whose parents are healthcare workers and for students with support needs who require care,” Whiteside said in a news conference.
“Parents are encouraged to reach out to their school principal to make those arrangements.”
When questioned about the students returning to school in the first week, Whiteside confirmed that the children of teachers will also be able to return to school next week.
Omicron vs schools
Whiteside said the ministry was balancing the benefits of in-person learning against the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant—daily case counts have been reported to double every two or three days. That has led to a spike in cases.
“We know that face to face learning is important for the intellectual, social, and emotional development of students, and that schools are more than just a place of learning,” Whiteside said.
“They also provide important supports for students who may need a bit of extra help, whether that is in the form of mental health services or hot meals or other programs.”
With that in mind, Whiteside said the priority is to continue in-person learning for the remainder of the school year.
The province also said it would be updating its guidelines for school districts around COVID preparedness as Omicron continues to cause a serious rise in daily case counts.
On Wednesday, the province announced 2,944 new cases of COVID in BC, another one-day record after a week of new records.
And experts say those numbers are also an under-count—even compared to the daily case counts earlier this month.
The updated guidelines, created in consultation with the BC Centre for Disease Control, will be posted as an addendum to the existing COVID safety guidelines for schools.
“Some of the enhanced measures that will be enacted include reinforcing the importance of the daily health checks, ensuring that you stay home if sick; implementing strategies to prevent crowding during class transition times, such as staggering start and stop times or recess time, break time; holding school gatherings and events such as assemblies in a virtual format; holding staff only gathering virtually,” Whiteside said.
“These guidelines build on existing protocol that has successfully minimized the spread of the virus in our school.”
Those existing guidelines include encouraging everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated, cleaning hands, and regularly disinfecting cleaning surfaces.
As the Delta variant took hold earlier this year, the number of cases among people 12 and under saw major increases compared to other age groups.
Whiteside said next week will provide teachers some breathing room to better prepare for the remainder of students to return to the classroom on Jan 10.
“This additional time will also allow schools to proactively implement continuity of learning plans to meet the unique challenges that we face,” she said.
On top of calling for a delayed start to in-person learning, the Safe Schools Coalition have both called for the province to step up on providing protective equipment, such as masks (particularly, N95 and KN95 masks) and to buy air purifiers for classrooms.
Ventilation has been a major point of concern in classrooms, with Burnaby Teachers’ Association telling the Beacon earlier this year that 200 local classrooms were not connected to HVAC systems.
Whiteside noted $300 million being committed by the province to upgrade HVAC systems in schools since the beginning of the pandemic.
Parents whose children are not returning to school next week may be eligible for the recovery caregiving benefit (CRCB). That program, run by the federal government, pays up to $450 per week for households whose children are unable to attend school due to COVID.