Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside announced that elementary and secondary schools across B.C. won’t reopen for students until Jan. 10.
The announcement, made Wednesday, will leave parents scrambling to find care for their children, who were expected to return to school next week. The announcement applies to classes from Kindergarten to Grade 12.
School staff will return to work on Jan. 3, as planned, and use that time to prepare enhanced COVID-19 safety plans, Whiteside said.
“Schools will use the next week to implement enhanced safety plans,” Whiteside said. “We have shown the education system is nimble, safe and strong.”
Whiteside acknowledged that parents depend on schools being open, but said the goal is to enact plans now to prevent further disruptions and closures later in the school year.
“We know that face-to-face learning is important to the intellectual and social… learning of students,” Whiteside said.
The province’s goal is to ensure in-person learning can continue, despite the surge in COVID-19 cases spurred by the Omicron variant, she added.
The children of healthcare workers, and children with special needs that are supported through schools, will be able to return on Jan. 3, Whiteside said. Parents should contact their children's school to make those arrangements, she said.
Enhanced COVID-19 safety measures that are being considered include staggering class start and end times, recess times, pausing all extra-curricular sports, limiting visitors to schools, restricting assemblies and other school gatherings to virtual events only, and stepping up the daily health checks. Many of the measures will be familiar to students and school staff, Whiteside said.
"We understand this will be disruptive to many families next week," Whiteside said. "We're in a situation where we need to work proactively now, to minimize disruption, minimize absenteeism, down the road."
Henry said school won't be closed, and the children of essential workers - including teachers themselves - will be able to return next week.
"What we are doing is a phased approach to back to school," Henry said. "My understanding is the children of teachers and essential workers will be back in school next week."
Public health officials will be working with school districts to help them develop safety plans to address the challenges caused by the new Omicron variant of COVID-19, Henry added.
"We know our classroom settings are safe, and they are not amplifying transmission. We expect that to be the same with Omicron," Henry said.