School administrators in British Columbia have been asked by provincial health officials to create contingency and safety plans if up to one third of staff are off sick at any given time.
B.C.’s top doctor, Bonnie Henry, says that the fast spreading of the Omicron variant is forcing schools, businesses and the health-care sector to adapt given the high rate of transmission, the short incubation period and the increasing number of people who are getting ill.
“We need to anticipate that as many as a third of your workforce at any one time may become ill with COVID-19, and they may not be able to come to work. We need to adapt businesses so we can operate at these reduced numbers,” she said at a briefing Tuesday afternoon.
“Whether you’re a private company, a school, a front-line business or a health-care site, now is the time that we have to prepare.”
Health officials also noted that Omicron is up to eight times more transmissible than previous variants and it’s now impossible for them to report cases and exposure events at schools.
Ontario and Manitoba have announced they would join Quebec in moving students to online learning at least until Jan. 17. Newfoundland and Labrador also moved its students online starting Tuesday.
British Columbia, Alberta and Nova Scotia have announced week-long extensions to winter breaks for their primary and secondary students, and officials in B.C. and Alberta said they are committed to keeping kids in classes.
In B.C., school administrators went back to work on Tuesday with the intention of spending the week before students return devising contingency plans on what to do when there is an outbreak.
Darren Danyluk, president of the BC Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association (BCPVPA), said discussions are under way over how schools can stay open and respond to high numbers of absent teachers, along with the contingency plan for continuing learning if there has to be a functional closure for short periods.
“For quite some time now, staffing has been a challenge in schools in B.C., not just teaching staff but support staff. So any given day, we know that our members and the principals and vice-principals are having a challenge replacing absent staff,” he said in an interview.
“And if the new variant results in even greater numbers of people having to be home ill even just for short periods of time, that obviously makes for even bigger problems.”
Mr. Danyluk said whether a level of absenteeism can cause an issue depends on resources in different areas of the province. If a region has enough replacement staff, then it won’t be problematic, but in small and remote communities, it would be more difficult to find sufficient substitutes.
Dr. Henry also warned that British Columbia will not be able to report school cases and exposures in the same way that it has in the past. Last week, Ontario announced it would stop reporting COVID-19 case figures in schools or child-care settings, prompting concerns from parents.
Alberta announced last week that students would return from the winter break a week later than initially planned, citing the need for school boards to plan for staffing disruptions as teachers fell ill with COVID-19, and Premier Jason Kenney says that is still the plan. Mr. Kenney said his government sees shutting down schools as a last resort, and he said further delaying the return to classes is not on the table.
“There will be challenges,” he said Tuesday. “There will be teachers and staff who are in isolation because of the widespread nature of this variant, but I think there has been a significant change in the consensus across North America. Many jurisdictions that had suspended schools for in-classroom instruction for much of the past 20 months have realized, in retrospect, that it was a mistake.”
The government has consistently said throughout the pandemic that schools have not been a significant source of COVID-19 transmission, though last week Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping acknowledged that delaying the return to school will reduce the spread of the virus.
Saskatchewan, where Premier Scott Moe has repeatedly ruled out additional public-health measures in response to Omicron, was only the province in the country not to extend its winter break; classes resumed as scheduled this week. Health and education officials were expected to make an announcement related to schools on Wednesday.