The B.C. government says thousands of students across the province will return to in-class learning Monday despite the risk that the highly transmissible Omicron variant could significantly impact staffing in the weeks to come.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside joined Health Minister Adrian Dix and Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry to make the announcement during a live news conference Friday.
Whiteside said there will be enhanced safety measures in place at schools, including staggered break times, virtual assemblies and visitor restrictions. She also said schools will have access to three-layered masks despite calls from the B.C. Teachers' Federation to distribute N95s instead.
"It is essential — and it is a priority for all of us — that we keep schools open," said Henry.
WATCH | Public health orders are last resort, Henry says:
Last week, the province announced a staggered return to school in January due to the spread of Omicron, and school administrators have been using this time to prepare contingency plans, including functional, phased closures for when too many staff are sick or required to isolate.
B.C. Teachers' Federation responds
Terri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, held her own news conference immediately after the province's ended.
Mooring said school staff want to avoid functional closures and that is why the union is frustrated that more layers of protection are not being offered by the government.
She said she would like to see the province not only make N95 masks available to students and staff upon request, but also prioritize boosters for teachers and work to get more students vaccinated.
According to Mooring, the highest vaccination rates for children ages five to 11 who have received their first dose is 52 per cent in Vancouver Coastal Health. In the Northern Health region, it's currently only 23 per cent.
"We would like to see much more of an emphasis placed on access to those vaccinations for school-age children."
Rapid tests not coming rapidly
The province has also been criticized for the lack of available rapid tests in B.C.
Health officials have faced calls over the course of the pandemic, and more acutely in the past week as Omicron quickly spreads, to widely distribute the tests, which can be used at home and provide results in minutes.
With children expected to return to school next week, improved availability of such tests would be welcomed by educators and families alike.
Henry said Friday that a supply is on the way from the federal government and should arrive next week.
She said all rapid tests in the province now are currently spoken for and are being used in long-term care for health-care workers and remote Indigenous communities.
When the new batch arrives from Ottawa, Henry said the tests will be available to test symptomatic school staff late next week and, eventually, will be available to support families to test children at home.
Whiteside said schools will no longer report individual COVID-19 cases to public health for contact tracing. Schools will alert health authorities if overall attendance dips significantly, which will trigger a public health investigation, she said.
Henry said there is no absolute threshold for absenteeism, as what's normal will vary by school and district. She said parents will still be notified when a COVID-19 outbreak is identified.
Reactivating health order
Outside the education system, Henry also announced she is ordering B.C. business owners to reactivate COVID-19 safety plans.
All B.C. employers open during the pandemic once again must have approved health and safety protocols in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The requirement was first put in place when B.C. began reopening in May 2020, after the first shutdown.
Under such an order, employers have an obligation to minimize risk to staff and customers. This includes measures like physical barriers, capacity limits indoors and keeping workers home when they are sick.
In July 2021, the province announced workplaces could ease certain restrictions and shift from strict safety plans to communicable disease plans, which include protocols like handwashing.
This is now no longer the case due to the Omicron variant, and Henry said WorksafeBC is available to offer support to employers if they need help with these plans.
On Friday, the province announced 349 people are now in hospital with COVID-19, including 93 in intensive care, while nine more people have died from the disease.
As of Friday, 23.9 per cent of COVID-19 tests in B.C. are coming back positive, according to the province's COVID-19 dashboard.
Henry has said anything above a five per cent test-positivity rate indicates a concerning level of community transmission.
A total of 3,144 new cases were also reported. But in the wake of the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which has caused testing capacity issues in B.C. — and in light of the decreased virulence of the variant for many who contract it — experts say daily case counts are now a less reliable statistic for understanding the pandemic.