Alberta to keep schools closed until Jan. 10 due to rapidly spreading Omicron

Alberta will delay the return to school for kindergarten to Grade 12 students until Jan. 10, due to concerns surrounding the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

The holiday break extension will allow staff and school boards to better prepare for a return to classes, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said. Diploma exams for high school students will be cancelled, as they were to start on Jan. 11.

“School authorities have already told us they need more time to prepare,” LaGrange said. “I completely understand these concerns.”

The press conference announcing the delay was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, with only 30 minutes notice given.

“I have just stepped out of a meeting with Premier Jason Kenney and my cabinet colleagues to announce an important decision we have just finalized,” LaGrange said.

“Today’s decision wasn’t made lightly,” she said, adding that the government wanted to share the news with Albertans as soon as it was decided.

According to LaGrange, with the rapid rise of the Omicron variant, many school board officials are worried about potential staffing pressures, including teachers, bus drivers, maintenance workers, and educational assistants.

“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,” the education minister said.

The province’s case counts of COVID-19 continue to surge, with 11,000 new infections reported over the last six days.

In an attempt to make the return to classes safer, the province will also deliver 8.6 million rapid tests and 16.5 million pediatric and adult “medical-grade masks” to schools in the week of Jan. 10.

When asked for details about the masks, the province said they would not be N95s, but are “more heavy-duty” than the cloth ones previously handed out and are rated for filtration. Each student and staff member is to receive an eight-week supply of masks.

The province says the rapid test distribution will ensure each student and school staff member across Alberta has two test kits, with each kit containing five tests. Distribution details are still being finalized.

More information will come at an update late next week, LaGrange said.

Any further changes to the resumption of in-person learning will be based on case information, health data, and “evidence-based” operational information from school authorities, the province says.

“With the COVID situation rapidly evolving, so too must our response be,” she added. “Our plan to pause the return to school is in line with other jurisdictions in Canada.”

A growing number of provinces delayed a full return to in-person classroom instruction once the break ends in the new year.

Ontario announced on Thursday that students would return to classes on Jan. 5, a two-day delay to allow time for more safety measures to be prepared.

B.C. said on Wednesday that it would delay in-person instruction until Jan. 10, except for learners who need extra support who will return to schools on either Jan. 3 or 4.

In Nova Scotia, the holiday break was extended until Jan. 10 to allow families to monitor for any developing COVID-19 symptoms before children return to classes.

All schools in Quebec will provide remote learning until Jan. 17, where possible. 

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