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The B.C. government says students will return to school on Jan. 10.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/Reuters

British Columbia will extend the holiday break for its students amid a rapid increase in COVID-19 infections – the first time the province has kept its classrooms closed to most children since schools across the country were shut down in the spring of 2020.

The government said on Wednesday that all students will start school on Jan. 10, except for children of essential workers and those who need extra supports, who can attend next week.

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said that in-person learning was beneficial to the academic and social development of students, but it was also important to safely reopen.

“Our efforts are truly focused on working to reduce disruption and reduce absenteeism in our schools,” she said at a news conference on Wednesday, adding: “Taking a few extra days now … we are setting up our schools for the best possible start.”

B.C.’s decision to extend the break was similar to that of Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia as cases surge across the country, fuelled by the Omicron variant. The Newfoundland and Labrador government said on Wednesday that students would move online next week, and that the decision would be re-evaluated on a weekly basis. Ontario and Alberta are expected to announce their decision this week on whether schools will reopen as scheduled.

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School closings during the COVID-19 pandemic are having a detrimental effect on students and families, research shows

Doctors, parents and educators are increasingly divided about keeping schools open as the virus spreads more rapidly. Governments and public-health officials have said it is important for children to be in classrooms, citing the mental and emotional toll that schooling disruptions have had on students during the pandemic.

The challenge facing officials is balancing the risk of the virus that is often relatively mild in children, and the damage caused by missing in-school time.

The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation had asked the province to delay the start of the winter terms as COVID-19 cases mount. The Omicron variant has “changed the pandemic,” the federation said in a series of tweets, and made recommendations on how to safely reopen schools, which included ensuring free N95 masks for staff and students.

Jennifer Kwan, a family doctor in Ontario who helped found the advocacy group Masks4Canada, said that schools should remain open with measures that include quality masks, improved ventilation and regular access to rapid testing.

“Schools are essential,” Dr. Kwan said, “and should take precedent over non-essential high-risk activities and venues.”

Some doctors, however, wondered if there needs to be a bit of breathing room before students head back to classrooms after the holidays.

Anna Banerji, an infectious-disease specialist and pediatrician at St. Joseph’s Health Centre of Unity Health Toronto, said that while she doesn’t want children to be out of school, there is a risk of cases ballooning after children return to school buildings following holiday gatherings, causing more disruptions to learning and potentially leading to school closings.

“Adding one or two extra weeks – and during that time kids will be at home whether they are in virtual school or not – will save a lot of headaches in the end,” Dr. Banerji said.

School-board officials have also raised concerns about how they will operate schools if infections continue to soar and staff are in isolation after being exposed to the virus. In previous waves of the pandemic, schools have been closed because of operational challenges.

With Omicron being highly transmissible, school administrators in Alberta have shared their worries around staffing with the provincial government, said Trisha Estabrooks, chair of Edmonton Public Schools. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control has recommended a shorter isolation period for people with COVID-19, dropping to five days from 10, as long as they are asymptomatic. Quebec, Ontario and Alberta have said they are examining that recommendation.

“We will be facing staffing shortages right from the get-go,” Ms. Estabrooks said. “We need a better plan here in Alberta for schools.”

Tess Clifford, a psychologist and parent in Kingston, expressed frustration that governments and public-health officials were once again discussing moving children to a virtual learning environment. She said that school is not only beneficial for students, but parents need children in classrooms so they are also able to work.

“I can’t believe this is on the table,” she said. “There have been so many experts and educators and research that shows closing school harms kids.”

Prachi Srivastava, an associate professor of education and global development at the University of Western Ontario in London, echoed the sentiment.

“It’s the third year of disruptions. There are consequences beyond learning – in terms of socialization, in terms of routine, in terms of structure,” Prof. Srivastava said.

She worried that governments have not considered how to help students recover from learning gaps after months of turmoil, whether through curriculum changes or adding another year to school.

“If we’re going to have extended closures … we need to work on a medium- and long-term plan,” she said. “What are we doing to meet the educational needs of young people?”

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