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Omicron spurs Alberta post-secondary institutions to return to online learning in January

Post-secondary students throughout Alberta will be returning to classes in January without returning to campus as institutions prepare for an Omicron-driven surge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virtual learning in place until at least Jan. 21 in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge

Students at several post-secondary institutions will be online for most of January. (Tricia Kindleman/CBC)

Post-secondary students throughout Alberta will be returning to classes in January without returning to campus as institutions prepare for an Omicron-driven surge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The University of Alberta and the University of Calgary have both announced plans to move the majority of classes online for about three weeks.

On Wednesday, the U of A announced that it will remain online from Jan. 4 to at least Jan. 23, while the U of C said that in-person learning on its campus is expected to resume on Jan. 31.

"All open campus spaces will again be asked to respect physical distancing guidelines of two metres," U of A president and vice-chancellor Bill Flanagan said in a news release.

"This includes research spaces and laboratories, computer labs and study spaces." 

The U of C announced similar precautions, noting in a news release that some practicum work, student services and research would continue on campus. 

Nicole Schmidt, U of C students' union president, said she is grateful her university made the call to go online, but acknowledged some students are disappointed to make the change again.

"Overwhelmingly, students understand and are supportive of this decision because obviously it keeps our campus community and campus population safe," Schmidt said Wednesday.

"We're just really pleased that the university listened to the students' union and made a decision that allows students to plan ahead for the next semester."

U of A students' union president Rowan Ley said he was reluctant at first to accept the idea of going back online, given the university's success with masking and vaccination. He eventually came around to the idea just seeing the spike in Omicron cases.

"We put this ask out to basically go back online for a very brief period and come back as soon as possible because we felt that it was inevitable but students needed to know soon," Ley said.

The reaction has been mixed though, Ley said. 

Other institutions that have announced plans to move to online learning until at least Jan. 21 include MacEwan University, the University of Lethbridge, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), and Mount Royal University.

Most announcements came in the wake of Tuesday's sobering COVID-19 update from the Alberta government, in which new health measures were announced and citizens were urged to limit in-person contacts to minimize risk of the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19.

The first case of Omicron in Alberta was announced on Nov. 30. As of Wednesday, there have been 2,131 confirmed cases of the variant. 

Alberta currently has 7,065 active cases of COVID-19.

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