Alberta students in kindergarten to Grade 12 will return to their classrooms on Jan. 10 after an extended holiday break, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said Wednesday.
On Dec. 30, the province had announced it was delaying the post-holiday reopening of schools province-wide after boards requested more time to assess the impact of the new Omicron variant in the classroom.
Winter break for K-12 students was extended to Jan. 10, but the government said it had not made decisions on whether students will be learning in class or at home.
LaGrange said Wednesday that all students will return to learning in their classrooms.
"Over the past several days my team and I have continued to work closely with school authorities," LaGrange told a news conference. "I am extremely grateful for their input and I am so pleased to confirm that ECS (early childhood services) and kindergarten to Grade 12 students will return to classrooms on Jan. 10.
"Children who learn in person belong in the classroom and they will be there with the added safety of rapid tests and medical-grade masks."
The rapid tests and masks will be distributed to schools as "an added layer of protection to lower the risk of transmission of the Omicron variant," LaGrange said.
The government will begin distributing shipments of rapid tests and masks later this week and all schools will have their initial shipments by the end of next week. LaGrange said the shipments to schools will be in phases.
Students should wear masks, Hinshaw says
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said there are no "risk-free solutions" but that she believes the province's approach is prudent.
"There is a very high transmission risk right now and I continue to advise that people do everything they can to minimize the number of close contacts they have," Hinshaw said.
"However, I also believe that if we were to shut schools across the entire province, we would be imposing much greater harm on all of those students by not allowing them the opportunity for in-school learning at this time."
She said the use of rapid testing, medical masks and other measures will help to protect students and staff.
"Given the current situation, I also want to note that I strongly recommend that students in all grades wear masks, including kindergarten to Grade 3," she said. "To keep the risk in schools low it will be critical for all of us to stay home and keep our children home if any of us have symptoms."
School authorities will have flexibility to shift a class or an individual grade to short-term at-home learning if needed to address operational challenges at a school, the province said in a news release.
Decisions on shifting entire schools or school authorities to at-home learning will continue to be made by the Alberta government, with input from school authorities, it said.
Online tutoring coming
LaGrange said free online-tutoring resources will be available starting next week for students in grades 4 to 9 who need to catch up on skills after falling behind due to the pandemic.
The tutoring resource will be launched with pre-recorded video tutoring sessions to improve students' literacy and numeracy skills. The province plans to expand the service later in the year to cover more grades and subjects and add live tutoring.
As of Wednesday, there were 470 people with COVID-19 in hospital in Alberta, up from 436 on Tuesday, with 72 of those patients in intensive care, 11 more than on Tuesday.
Hinshaw reported 11 new deaths from COVID-19 on Wednesday, and a test positivity of 36.9 per cent.
Positivity rates across the province are the highest since the beginning of the pandemic.