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Many families have expressed frustration and anxiousness about the possibility that children could be learning remotely after the holiday break.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Elementary-school students in New Brunswick will begin their winter break a week earlier, and several Ontario school boards have asked students and teachers to take their learning materials home for the holidays. The developments are the latest response from educators amid the arrival of the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant.

In Canada, COVID-19 infections among children between the ages of 5 and 11 are increasing rapidly and make up the highest proportion of cases among all age groups at 23 per cent, according to a report from the Public Health Agency of Canada earlier this month. Many families have expressed frustration and anxiousness about the possibility that children could be learning remotely after the holiday break.

In New Brunswick, the government said earlier this week that active cases continue to primarily affect elementary schools. It has prohibited organized sports and activities for children under 12, and students in kindergarten through to Grade 6 are to begin their holiday break on Friday, one week ahead of schedule. The government has also reduced capacity to 50 per cent in movie theatres, casinos and sporting events.

“These steps are necessary to reduce the spread of Omicron and other variants as much as possible and to protect our health care system, as keeping our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed is crucial,” Premier Blaine Higgs said in a statement.

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Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, said at a briefing this week that health officials in Canada need to use every tool at their disposal, including rapid antigen tests, to avoid school closings during the coming Omicron wave.

“We want kids to stay in school,” Dr. Tam said.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, said on Tuesday that he is reviewing school safety protocols and will be making recommendations shortly. The province is sending home five rapid tests for each student to use over the holidays. At the Limestone District School Board in Kingston, where cases are rising, the director has taken the additional step of providing staff with rapid tests for the holidays. Similarly, the parent community at Toronto’s Earl Beatty Junior and Senior Public School will make rapid tests available for its school staff.

“It’s my hope that we keep schools open as long as we can,” Dr. Moore said.

However, several Ontario school boards have issued notes telling families and staff to take all personal belongings and learning materials home when classes end for the holidays. The Durham District School Board told families that “while we do not anticipate a shift to remote learning after the break, we want to ensure that all families are prepared.”

The Peel District School Board, west of Toronto, said it was “hopeful” learning would resume in person in January. “Given the changing health environment, as a precautionary measure only, we have asked students to take home their school-issued devices ... and personal belongings in case the Ministry of Education or Peel Public Health direct us to switch to online learning,” it said in a letter to families late last week.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board said students should take home their belongings because it helps with “cleaning of schools over the break.” The board also noted that it would allow students to participate in learning if they are required to quarantine.

Yoni Freedhoff, an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and a parent, said the shift to remote learning would not be on the table had the government been pro-active. The province could have established a host of measures, Dr. Freedhoff said, including vaccine mandates for schools, ventilation standards and rapid testing.

“All of this, plus broad community-based vaccination mandates and third-dose availability and maybe – and really only maybe, given how contagious Omicron appears – we’d be in a different place,” he said. “Instead we hoped for the best, did next to nothing and, yet again, looks like we’ll be getting the worst.”

Ottawa-area parent Catherine Butler has kept her 10-year-old home from school this week. “We felt that it was prudent given the rapidly changing situation with this new variant,” she said.

Her son’s class has 31 students, and Ms. Butler was frustrated that the province was not doing more to protect schooling for children.

“If things are worse or have not changed between now and January 3, it’s highly unlikely I will send my son back and it makes me sick to say that because I want him in school,” she said.

With a report from Carly Weeks