The BC government says thousands of students across the province will return to classroom learning Monday, despite the risk that the highly transferable Omicron variant could significantly affect staffing levels in the coming weeks.
Education Secretary Jennifer Whiteside joined Health Secretary Adrian Dix and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to make the announcement during a live press conference Friday.
Whiteside said enhanced security measures will be put in place at schools, including staggered breaks, virtual gatherings and visitor restrictions. She also said schools will have access to three-layer masks, despite calls from the BC Teachers Federation to distribute N95s instead.
“It’s essential, and it’s a priority for all of us, that we keep schools open,” Henry said. Outside of the education system, she also announced that she is directing business owners in BC to reactivate COVID-19 security plans.
Last week, the county announced a staggered return to school in January due to the spread of Omicron, and school administrators have used this time to prepare contingency plans, including functional, phased shutdowns for when too many staff are sick or need to be isolated.
On Jan. 5, Teri Mooring, the chairman of the BC Teachers Federation, said the union is deeply concerned that Omicron will reduce staffing levels so that classrooms cannot function.
Things the government could announce today that would help keep schools open and make them safer for everyone #bced#bced a> employees and students
😷N95s, keep your distance to delay transfer
Vaccine Clinics in Schools for Students and Boosters
📳 Notifications at school
Rapid tests don’t come soon
The province has also been criticized for the lack of available rapid tests in BC
Over the course of the pandemic, and in the past week as Omicron spread rapidly, health officials have received a call to widely distribute the tests, which can be used at home and provide results in minutes.
As children are expected to return to school next week, improved availability of such tests would be welcomed by educators and families alike.
Henry said Friday a delivery is on its way from the federal government and should arrive next week.
She said all rapid tests in the province are now being discussed and used in long-term care for health professionals and remote indigenous communities.
When the new batch arrives from Ottawa, Henry said the tests will be available late next week to test symptomatic school staff and, eventually, will be available to support families to test children at home.
Whiteside said schools will no longer report individual cases of COVID-19 to public health for contact tracing. Schools will alert health authorities if general attendance drops significantly, leading to a public health investigation, she said.
Henry said there is no absolute threshold for absenteeism, as what is normal will vary by school and district. She said parents will still be notified when an outbreak of COVID-19 is identified.
On Thursday, the province announced that 324 people with COVID-19 are now in hospital, including 90 in intensive care, as the province reported three more deaths from the disease.
As of Thursday, 24.2 percent of COVID-19 tests in BC come back positive, according to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Henry has said that anything above a five percent test positivity rate indicates a worrisome level of community transmission.
A total of 3,223 new cases were also reported. But in the wake of the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which has led to problems with testing capacity in BC — and in light of the variant’s reduced virulence for many who contract it — experts say the daily number cases is now less reliable. statistics to understand the pandemic.