British Columbia

2 B.C. schools close temporarily due to staff absences

A secondary school in northwestern B.C., and an independent school in Surrey are the first in the province to close due to staff shortages since the Omicron wave began.

Hazelton Secondary School and a Surrey independent school temporarily shut down

Hazelton Secondary School, left, in Hazelton, B.C. and Bibleway Christian Academy in Surrey, right, were the first two schools in B.C. to close since the Omicron variant was first detected in the province. Over the winter break, provincial health officials directed school districts to have plans in place in case a large number of staff were sick at the same time. (Google Street View)

A public high school in northern B.C. and an independent school in Surrey are closed because of a high number of teacher and staff absences.

The temporary school closures are the first in the province since the start of the Omicron wave. 

B.C.'s Ministry of Education says there are currently "functional closures" at Hazelton Secondary School and the Bibleway Christian Academy in Surrey due to staff shortages.

A spokesperson said the ministry couldn't provide information on whether the absences were related to COVID-19 because it "does not have the authority to collect information about specific medical conditions or illnesses."

Over the winter break, provincial health officials directed school districts to have plans in place in case a large number of staff were sick at the same time.

In northern B.C., the Coast Mountains School District 82 notified parents of the closure at Hazelton Secondary School Tuesday morning, after some students had already arrived for classes. 

The school will be closed until at least Thursday, according to a letter signed by Superintendent of Schools Janet Meyer, "due to a shortage of staff and an inability to cover staff shortages to provide the required level [of care] to ensure the safety and supervision of our students."

Ginger Fuller, the secretary-treasurer of the district, said officials will meet Wednesday to decide when to reopen Hazelton Secondary to regular classes.

She said due to privacy concerns she could only confirm the closure was a result of illness. The school district did not clarify whether the absences were due to COVID-19 specifically.

The high school, about 400 kilometres west of Prince George, serves a number of small communities. It has just over 380 students and about 30 teachers and staff.

Meyer said the school district has the power to close a school temporarily to ensure safety. 

Health authorities can also recommend school closures based on absentee rates in a school or community. 

A spokesperson for Northern Health said health officials didn't play a role in the closure at Hazelton Secondary.

Speaking to CBC's Daybreak North before the Hazelton Secondary closure was announced, Joslyn Bagg, the president of the Terrace District Teachers Union said the prospect of COVID-19-related teacher absences was magnified by a serious teacher shortage in the area.

"We all, as teachers, are always willing to move mountains ... and be as ready as we can be."

School officials at Bibleway Christian Academy were not available to comment. 

Student attendance levels to be monitored

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said school administration officials, including principals, make decisions about closing in-person classes and moving to temporary online teaching.

"Local staff in our districts and everyone in our education system is working very, very hard to do everything we can to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 so we can continue to keep kids connected to in-person learning," Whiteside said in an interview.

Whiteside said the ministry will monitor student attendance levels over the coming days as well as keep watch on numbers for teachers and staff while schools face the challenges of the Omicron variant.

"We don't have firm [attendance] numbers yet," she said.

"We have some anecdotal reporting in from different parts of the province that indicates there is indeed a somewhat lower attendance than what would be normal for the week, but nothing dramatic and nothing firm yet."

With files from Kate Partridge and The Canadian Press

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