B.C. will be delaying the return to school for most K-12 students until Jan. 10, the province announced Wednesday.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province will take a phased approach to returning from the winter break, with schools opening for children of essential workers and those with special needs on Jan. 3 or 4 as planned.
"Parents are encouraged to reach out to their school principal to make those arrangements," Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said.
All other students will return to class on Jan. 10.
Whiteside said a staggered approach will allow public health and education officials to assess the impact of the Omicron variant and plan for enhanced safety measures at schools.
In addition to existing measures such as physical distancing and mask-wearing, Whiteside said schools will look to reinforce the importance of daily health checks, stagger start and stop times to avoid crowding, hold more events virtually, limit visitors to schools, and pause extracurricular sports tournaments.
"We know it's been a very long year for students and while some may be excited for an extended winter break, we know that many families depend on our schools being open and it's critical for them to have our schools running a smoothly as possible for the duration of the school year," she said.
"But taking a few extra days now for planning and preparation … we are setting up our schools for the best possible start."
BCTF calls for change
The president of British Columbia Teachers' Federation (BCTF) had been urging the province to delay the start of the winter term in public schools in recent days.
Several social media messages posted by the BCTF and retweeted by union president Teri Mooring said provincial and district officials "need to do much more'' if they intend to keep schools open in January.
"We're in a new pandemic ... and we're in a situation where we have a very highly transmissible variant that impacts people that are even vaccinated," Mooring told CBC News.
Following Wednesday's announcement, Mooring said giving staff and teachers extra time to ensure a safe reopening of schools is necessary, especially as thousands of students are still unvaccinated.
"We are really concerned about the spread of Omicron within schools and so this time will allow school staff to do some planning," she said. "It certainly doesn't alleviate all our concerns, but it's an important step."
She expressed disappointment that the province did not commit to union suggestions such as fast-tracking teachers and support staff for boosters, making N95 masks available in schools, and addressing concerns about ventilation.
Questions also remain about a rapid testing strategy for schools and how notifications about exposures and clusters will be handled, Mooring said.
"There's a lot of concerns that there could be significant disruption within in the K-to-12 system in January," she said.
Request for remote learning
Jennifer Heighton, the co-founder and director for Safe Schools Coalition B.C., said earlier Wednesday she wants the province to implement online learning again for the new year, at least until community transmission of the Omicron variant is lower.
"If COVID is circulating in the air a lot more and Omicron is so contagious that it doubles every two to three days, putting student in classrooms without these mitigating measures is not the best thing to do," Heighton said on CBC's The Early Edition.
She's urging the province to follow Ontario and Quebec's move to to provide HEPA air purifiers and better masks.
"Quebec has provided CO2 monitors for their classrooms. Ontario has provided HEPA air purifiers ... so it's not like what we're asking for hasn't been done before," Heighton said.
She said only about 35 per cent of children age five to 11 have had their first shot, which means many students from kindergarten to Grade 6 are not at all protected against the Omicron variant.
Anxiety over safety measures
Vik Khanna, vice-chair of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC), said parents of schoolchildren are anxious over the proposed safety measures coming as part of the province's announcement.
Khanna said parents were in contact with the province over masking rules, air filtration at schools, and what children would do at lunch breaks with masks off.
"I think there's going to be many parents that will keep their kids at home and kind of wait to ride this out," he said.
Khanna said many parents, especially immunocompromised ones, would remain flexible with their children as they head into another term under the cloud of a new variant.