Newfoundland and Labrador schools switch to online learning as COVID-19 cases surge

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Public school students in Newfoundland and Labrador will return from the holiday break on Monday to remote learning, as the province, like the rest of the Atlantic region, battles a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Premier Andrew Furey announced the change on Wednesday, one day after Nova Scotia extended the holiday break for students in that province by one week in order to slow the spread of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.

"Now is the time for precaution, not for panic," Furey told reporters, as health officials reported 312 new infections — a record single-day case count for Newfoundland and Labrador. The province has 1,111 active reported cases of COVID-19.

Furey said the decision to switch to remote learning would be re-evaluated on a weekly basis in order to return students to in-person classes as soon as possible. Education Minister Tom Osborne said the move is not the government's "preferred choice."

"The preferred choice … is that we have in-class learning," Osborne told reporters. "It's better for our students; it's better for their emotional and mental health." The minister said schools will get an update every Thursday, starting Jan. 6.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald reported 44 more recoveries and said no one was in hospital with the disease. "The cases we are reporting this week are the result of transmission that took place just prior to and during Christmas," she said.

The provincewide outbreak is the result of a number of factors, Fitzgerald said, such as indoor gatherings, many of which occurred in downtown bars and restaurants in the St. John's area, were the majority of cases have been reported.

Fitzgerald issued a plea ahead of the New Year's holiday. "I encourage everyone to pare down their plans for New Year's Eve and keep their close contacts to their steady 20 only," she said.

Nova Scotia, meanwhile, reported 586 new cases on Wednesday. The majority were in the Halifax area, where 393 infections were identified. Officials said 106 cases were in the province's eastern zone, 56 in the northern zone and 31 in the western zone.

Officials said there were 5,053 active cases of COVID-19 in the province and that 24 people were in hospital with the disease, including three patients in intensive care.

In New Brunswick, health officials reported 486 new COVID-19 cases and one new death — a person over 90 years old in the Edmundston area. They said the province's health system was preparing for an influx of cases caused by the Omicron variant.

“The regional health authorities and Extra-Mural/Ambulance New Brunswick are examining what services can be further reduced to ensure essential services and emergency surgeries can continue to be provided to all New Brunswickers, as we deal with the impact of the Omicron variant,” Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said in a news release.

While the province is currently dealing with both the Delta and Omicron mutations of the virus, officials projected that the Omicron variant will cause a rapid climb in the daily case count, as it has in other provinces. Public health urged people to reduce their contacts to limit the spread of the virus.

"We all need to limit our household contacts to a maximum of a steady 10,” Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health, said in a news release. “Whenever possible, we should try to keep our contacts even lower."

Officials said 43 people were in hospital with the disease, including 17 in intensive care.

Prince Edward Island reported 129 new cases Wednesday and said one person, between 60 and 79 years old, was hospitalized with the disease. The Island has 526 active reported cases.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 29, 2021.

— By Keith Doucette in Halifax.

The Canadian Press

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