Alberta extending winter break for K-12 students as Omicron spreads

Alberta students in kindergarten to Grade 12 will have an extended winter break as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the province, fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variant. 

Classes to resume Jan. 10, but no decisions yet on in-class versus at-home

Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange provides an update on COVID-19 and back-to-school guidance in Edmonton, on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Alberta students in kindergarten to Grade 12 will have an extended winter break as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the province, fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Classes will resume Jan. 10, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange told a news conference Thursday evening.

But decisions on whether students will learn in class or at home have not been made yet.

"More information on next steps related to whether students will learn in class or at home beginning Jan. 10 will be communicated late next week," the government said in a news release.

"The decision will be evidence-based using operational information provided by school authorities, case information and other available health data."

School was to begin in Edmonton and Calgary on Jan. 3 or Jan. 4, depending on the board.

LaGrange said she wanted to share the updated school plan as soon as possible. She said she left a meeting of the province's COVID cabinet committee with Premier Jason Kenney to make the announcement. 

"I'm confident that this additional time to plan will position school authorities for a successful startup," she said.

Education leaders told her they needed more time to assess the COVID-19 situation, she said.

"Schools are expecting a high number of student absences, making it harder for teachers to manage in-person and at-home learning at the same time, and with students and staff still on holidays it's very hard for anyone at this time to fully assess what the situation for schools may look like," she said.

School authorities will use the extra time to prepare potential in-person and at-home learning scenarios, the province said in the news release.

January diploma exams, which were set to begin on Jan. 11, have been cancelled, LaGrange said. The province has not yet made a decision about April and June diploma exams.

There were 23 schools with active cases before the break, though there isn't a "clear line of sight" on the current numbers, LaGrange said.

Knowing the exact number is more difficult with many testing positive on rapid tests that aren't reflected in the province's COVID-19 numbers, she said, but the province expects to have a clearer picture next week. 

Rapid test kits, medical masks

The province will also be providing an additional 8.6 million rapid tests for students and staff, LaGrange said — enough to supply two five-test kits to each student and staff member in Alberta's education system.

The province has also offered 16.5 million medical-grade masks for staff and students for the return to in-person learning. 

LaGrange said she knows Thursday's announcement does not give a lot of notice for parents, but the province's COVID situation is changing quickly. 

"I know that parents have been amazing throughout this whole pandemic, knowing that we have had to be nimble and they also want to ensure that their children are safe," she said.

LaGrange said she will provide another update late next week, which will include more information on mask and rapid test distribution. More information is available at alberta.ca/returntoschool.

LaGrange said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, will provide more information on the fast evolving Omicron situation at a news conference Friday.

Several other provinces have delayed the return to class or moved to online learning, in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant.

There were an estimated 4,000 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Alberta on Thursday, shattering the previous daily record of 2,775 cases set on Wednesday.

Parents have worries

Fraser Porter, chairperson of Oliver School's parent council and mother of a student in Grade 2, told CBC she worries that next week the province will announce that classes will be moving online.

"Are we going to get another 5:30 p.m. conference a few days before, letting us know, 'Oh, by the way you're going to be online schooling for the rest of the year?'"

Porter said she was pleased to hear the province will be handing out rapid tests and better quality masks at schools, but she'd like to see improvements to air filtration and smaller class sizes to further address the spread of COVID-19.

NDP deputy leader Sarah Hoffman said the Opposition was glad to see the delay, but the government doesn't have a plan to keep students safe.

"Still, we don't have a plan," she said in a news release. "Nothing of the sort. We need to properly staff schools. This government has failed to do this every step of the way during the pandemic."

The Opposition is also calling for N95 masks for teachers, improved air filtration and helping families pay for at-home learning resources.

With files from Paige Parsons