B.C Officials Announce Return to In-Class Learning, Order Businesses to Reactive COVID Safety Plans

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 Dr. 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. Outside the education system, she also announced she is ordering B.C. business owners to reactivate COVID-19 safety plans.

Last week, the province announced a staggering 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.

On Jan. 5, Teri Mooring, the president of the B.C. Teachers Federation said the union is greatly concerned Omicron will reduce staffing levels such that classrooms may not be able to function.

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 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 healthcare 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.

Ominous Omicron

On Thursday, the province announced 324 people are now in hospital with COVID-19, including 90 in intensive care, as the province reported three more deaths from the disease.

As of Thursday, 24.2 percent of COVID-19 tests in B.C. are coming back positive, according to the province’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Henry has said that anything above a five percent test-positivity rate indicates a concerning level of community transmission.

A total of 3,223 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.

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