Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver this morning.
Parents in Ontario will be sending their school-aged children back to their classrooms today after the Omicron variant prompted the provincial government to move classes online for two weeks. Add in a couple of snow days this week and re-entry after the Christmas break has been bumpy for those students and parents.
Western Canada, though, could provide a window into what school is going to be like for them: Students in Alberta and British Columbia have been back in class since Jan. 10, and even earlier in Saskatchewan, since right after the New Year holiday. Predictably, Omicron has had an impact.
In Regina, all of the public high schools were moved online for Jan. 20-24 to ensure there are enough teachers to supervise final exams and to minimize the chance students will have to miss the tests due to COVID-19 exposures. Saskatoon Public Schools shifted two schools to remote learning this week.
Patrick Maze, head of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation, said the province’s schools are in chaos as officials struggle with staffing shortages, quick shifts to online learning, and changes like cancelled exams.
“It is embarrassing to even call it an education system because there’s very little education going on,” Mr. Maze said. “There’s so many transitions and so many disruptions.”
In Alberta, the picture is very clear, given the amount of information available publicly. Alberta’s largest school boards release details on absent students, teachers, and support staff. The information shows that in Calgary and Edmonton, the gap between the number of staff absences and available substitutes continues to widen.
Schools in Alberta and Saskatchewan were walloped with high rates of absent teachers and support staff when classes returned earlier this month, and the problem has since expanded. In Calgary’s public schools, for example, 817 teachers were absent Tuesday, and the division was unable to fill 308 of those spots.
The Calgary Board of Education said roughly 7 per cent of its students were absent due to illness Jan. 17, while Edmonton Public Schools said 4 per cent were missing because of COVID-19 and another 3 per cent due to other illnesses. The Edmonton public board moved 10 classes online, while 14 of the Calgary board’s schools have moved at least one of their classes online.
So how are things going in British Columbia, the other province where school is in session? It’s hard to know.
The Ministry of Education said schools and school districts are responsible for making information available on functional closures available to families. The ministry said it is working with public health to determine the best way to capture this information.
The health authorities in B.C. used to post school exposures on their websites. The system was frequently criticized by parents who said it wasn’t up to date, but the exposure lists were there.
Earlier this month, Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said as a result of Omicron’s surge, it has become impossible to contact trace for every sick child and therefore impossible to report exposures as before. Instead, she said schools and health authorities would be monitoring attendance for major dips. If attendance drops below typical rates by, say, 10 per cent, schools would then notify public health.
On Tuesday, the ministry of education said in a statement that five schools have faced functional closures and two of them have since re-opened. But that information is not posted on health authority websites. Four of the districts where schools are closed have the information on their websites, but one does not.
The schools closed include a middle school in Mission, high schools in Chase and Hazleton, an elementary school in Armstrong and an independent school in Surrey.
“The threshold for this decision is made at the school or district level to best reflect the unique needs of each school,” the ministry said in an unattributed statement.
The statement notes that the closures reflect only a tiny minority of the province’s 1,571 public schools and 365 independent schools.
Only one of the province’s health authorities responded to questions about whether school closure information would be made available to the public. Fraser Health said it would post outbreak information.
It seems the frustrations over information gaps aren’t confined to parents and journalists.
Late Monday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry issued a new order empowering local health officers to require school staff to disclose their vaccination status. The reason, Dr. Henry said at her briefing Tuesday, was to help school districts make decisions about whether to make vaccinations mandatory for school staff.
“We know that several school districts had challenges in obtaining this important information,” Dr. Henry said. “This decision, this order, also assists [medical health officers] in knowing which schools are most at risk of outbreaks.”