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Sailor Second Class Hannah Angel directs Satam Alhasoun, left, and his son Mohammed Alhasoun as they arrive for COVID-19 testing in Halifax on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. More than 70 Canadian Armed Forces members have been assigned to assist with COVID-19 testing in Nova Scotia.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Nova Scotia has extended the holiday break for students, the latest province to keep children out of school buildings longer amid a rise in COVID-19 infections driven by the Omicron variant.

The province said on Tuesday that its students would return to the classroom on Jan. 10, a few days later than the previously scheduled return date of Jan. 6. Staff, meanwhile, would return next Tuesday to allow more time for public-health measures to be in place before students enter the buildings, the government said.

Quebec, too, has delayed the return of in-person school to Jan. 10 for its primary and high-school students.

Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, acknowledged the ongoing debate among families, educators and doctors about a return to school.

“Our approach to returning to schools is about balance,” Dr. Strang said at a news conference. “One of our key priorities has always been to keep children in school whenever possible.

“The concerns about controlling the spread of what is generally a relatively mild disease in children need to be weighed against the clear harms and risks associated with children not being in school and learning at home.”

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

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Education Minister Becky Druhan added that safety measures would be in place, including masking, limiting movement in school buildings and reducing numbers in places such as cafeterias.

“Parents, teachers, even students may have concerns about returning to school. Public health has assured us that schools remain safe,” she said.

The head of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union called the government’s move to extend the break a “prudent approach,” but also expressed concern about disruptions to learning if case numbers continue to rise.

Paul Wozney said that while school is the best place for students to learn, “remote learning that also provides a critical circuit break to community spread is preferable to rolling school closures and lengthy shutdowns and disruptions due to illness and isolation.”

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford said that an announcement on schools was expected “in the next couple of days.” He made the remarks at an unrelated event on Tuesday.

Families and educators have been anxious to learn if in-person classes will resume next week. School boards told students and teachers to take their learning materials home for the holidays in case classes shift to virtual learning.

Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said on Tuesday that the province has taken steps to improve ventilation in schools and expand testing for students. The province provided all students with rapid antigen tests for the holidays – “part of our ongoing commitment to protect students, staff and families,” she said in an e-mail statement.

Alanna Golden, a physician in Toronto and a former social worker in children’s mental health, said the government should keep schools open using a test-to-stay program, where students, their siblings and teachers remain in the classroom after an exposure with frequent rapid testing.

She and her colleagues penned an open letter to the government to resume in-person learning next week. Dr. Golden said that the social, emotional and mental harms to children from continuing school disruptions and closings have been “well-established at this point.”

“I want them [the government] to prioritize schools and make them essential,” she said.

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