The Alberta government is extending the winter break for kindergarten to Grade 12 students and teachers as the COVID-19 Omicron variant spreads rapidly in the province.
Alberta recorded an estimated 4,000 new COVID-19 infections Thursday, with a roughly 30 per cent test positivity rate. Both were records.
Students and teachers will now return to in-person learning on Jan. 10 province-wide instead of Monday, as originally planned.
In a press conference late Thursday, Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange said after meeting with the COVID-19 Cabinet Committee, the move was necessary due to fears over the Omicron variant and the necessary precautions schools must take to be ready to welcome students again.
“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,” LaGrange said.
“With students and staff still on holidays, it is very hard for anyone at this time to fully assess what the situation for schools may look like. School authorities have told us they need more time to prepare and to understand what the evolving COVID situation could mean for their school communities in terms of staffing and operational impacts.”
January diploma exams for high school students are also cancelled.
LaGrange also announced that starting Jan. 10, the province will distribute 8.6 million rapid tests to schools and 16.5 million medical-grade masks for teachers and students.
“This will bring convenience and is an additional measure to lower risk of in-school transmission,” she said.
Alberta is following other provinces that have made similar decisions to postpone the start of in-school classes in the new year, including Nova Scotia, Manitoba and British Columbia.
LaGrange said the plan to delay the return to school is in line with other jurisdictions and the province will provide an update next week about next steps. She added that schools will use next week to adjust COVID-19 case reporting, notifications and testing.
“With the COVID situation rapidly evolving, so too must our response,” she said.
Earlier this week, the Alberta Teachers’ Association called on the provincial government to do more to protect teachers and students in the wake of growing concerns about the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
“I would expect the minister to meaningfully engage with the ATA in the next week to seek further advice,” ATA president Jason Schilling tweeted Thursday.
“We have been consistently providing reasonable and sound advice about the safest return to school as possible. And we will continue to do so.”