The expanding omicron variant of COVID-19 has caused a delay in the reopening of B.C. public schools next week.
Public schools in the Central Okanagan will be open only to children with special needs and of essential service workers beginning Monday, with the remainder of students returning a week later on Monday, Jan. 10.
The one-week delay is to allow school districts to prepare schools for the latest COVID wave currently affecting school and health-care facilities across Canada, as directed by the provincial ministry of education.
The move was jointly announced on Wednesday afternoon by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside.
Additional protocols will be put in place for school districts across the province to follow, including such measures as staggered school starting and dismissal times, and recess breaks; testing measures; public distancing and mask wearing to be strictly adhered to; limited access of visitors to schools; and a stop to extra-curricular activities.
The announcement came a day after the BC Teachers’ Federation went public with demands for school post-Christmas holiday opening to be delayed and for advanced protocols to ensure teachers are given the booster shot before classes resume.
For Central Okanagan Board of Education chair Moyra Baxter, the BCTF request underlines an increasing frustration about the politics of vaccination in the school system.
“I keep hearing about from (the BCTF) about how students need to be vaccinated to protect teachers, but they never talk about their own unvaccinated colleagues coming to work,” Baxter said.
Baxter said the Central Okanagan Public Schools administrative staff is already working on changing school operating protocols after being informed this week of the pending changes.
Notification to parents will be forthcoming from the school administration office by Friday, Baxter suggested.
She hopes to meet with school trustees before the end of this week to discuss how this impacts upcoming committee and board meetings in January.
The planning and facilities committee meeting next Tuesday, Jan. 5, was to begin setting recommendations for catchment area changes to Okanagan Mission and Westside schools for final adoption by the board of education by Jan. 26.
“Those are very big issues so (the board) will have to discuss how we deal with that going forward,” Baxter said.
She acknowledged the extended closure will be difficult for many parents who have to return to work, echoing sentiment expressed by Whiteside that the intent is a short-term interruption to ensure school classes will carry on for the remainder of the 2021-22 school year without further disruption.
“We have been through this before but the one thing that is not being talked about is expansion or added resources for online learning…the intent is these extra days and not having to go beyond that,” she said.
For her part, Henry said public health officials are learning more about the spread characteristics of the omicron variant.
Different from previous variants, she said omicron infects people with a much smaller dose of the variant; transmits much more quickly, as people pass it on before even seeing symptoms themselves; incubation period reduced from about six to three days; rate of transmission complicates contact tracing efforts; and 10 times more likely to be reinfected if not yet vaccinated.
“Given the rate of transmission, we all must assume we have or can catch the virus and take measures to avoid passing it on,” she said.
Those steps include wearing a mask in public places, stay away from people at increased risk of getting the variant such as unvaccinated, stay away from work if sick and deter symptoms with rest and drinking lots of fluids.