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New Westminster schools prepare for return to class in the face of Omicron

Students return to class Jan. 10 as COVID-19 numbers soar across B.C.
Bonnie Henry Jennifer Whiteside COVID
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, left, and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside (seen here in a December briefing), spoke to media Jan. 7 to outline B.C.'s plans for the restart of school in the face of the Omicron surge.

New Westminster students are heading back to classrooms on Monday in the face of uncertainty around B.C.’s Omicron surge.

As with other districts around B.C., New Westminster school district staff have been working for the past week while most students remained home on an extended winter break.

At a provincial COVID-19 briefing Friday morning (Jan. 7), Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry noted districts have been using that time to plan for the return to school on Jan. 10.

Whiteside said schools will open again Monday with “reinforced safety measures” including measures such as staggered break times, a return to virtual assemblies and staff meetings, and restrictions on school visitors.

She said parents are being asked to send students to school with a three-layer mask, but schools will have a supply of disposable three-layer masks available for those who need them. She also reiterated the need for families to do a daily health check before sending students to school.

New Westminster updates health and safety plans

In a letter to families on Thursday, School District 40 superintendent Karim Hachlaf said district and school staff have spent the week “carefully reviewing” all protocols and updating the district’s health and safety plans as needed.

His letter noted measures that will be in place starting Monday:

  • School gatherings and events for staff and students will be held virtually whenever possible.
  • Events that must be in person (e.g. inter-school games, theatre productions), will be held in spaces where capacity will not exceed 50% of the maximum, and no outside spectators will be allowed.
  • For the time being, all extracurricular sports tournaments (any meeting of three or more teams) have been put on hold.
  • Visitors will be limited to only those who are supporting activities directly related to student learning and well-being.

Hachlaf said school-based health and safety teams are also working on changes that may take place at individual schools, such as new arrangements in classrooms to reduce face-to-face seating where possible, and possible changes to daily schedules – such as recess or class transition times – to prevent crowding in hallways.

Individual schools will reach out to families about changes at their specific school.

District plans for ‘functional closures’

School districts around B.C. are also making plans for what might happen if too many staff are off sick at once to keep schools running safely.

Hachlaf said the district will continue to keep an eye on the impact of case counts on New West’s staffing levels.

“While we will still use our on-call and casual staff to supplement school-based staff absences, in addition to district staff in required situations, we are also contingency planning for the possibility that extreme staff shortages may require (what) we temporarily call a functional closure to a school: a temporary shift to online or home learning options, allowing us to provide continuity of learning until we can safely staff and support all students back at a particular school,” he said.

He said functional closures would be an “emergency step” that will only be taken if there’s no other way to safely support in-person learning. His letter says such decisions will only be made “sparingly” and on a case-by-case basis in consultation with school and district leadership and, potentially, with Fraser Health.

‘Exposure notifications’ are no more

One thing families won’t see in the upcoming school term? Exposure notifications.

Up until the winter break, each health region had been posting school “exposures” on its website, listing the school in question and the date on which a COVID-19 exposure occurred. Health officials also sent letters to members of school communities when a self-monitor or self-isolation notice was deemed to be necessary.

Whiteside said that system will no longer be practical because contact tracing and case management is “no longer a helpful tool” in light of the soaring case counts.

She said the system needs a “proxy” to understand what may be happening in schools, and that proxy will be school attendance. Schools and districts will track the number of absences, watching for absenteeism that’s notably different from the norm.

“When it reaches a certain point, that will be a trigger to say there is something going on in a classroom or across a grade or in a school,” she said.

Questioned by reporters, Whiteside said that number would be somewhere in the 10-percentage-point range; for instance, if normal attendance is about 90%, then attendance of 80% would be a “signal of concern.”

At that point, public health will investigate to determine what may need to be done – including, potentially, using rapid tests to get a better picture of what’s happening within that school or classroom.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said rapid tests will also be provided to schools, initially for use by staff and, once B.C. receives more supply from the federal government, for use by students starting later this month.

Advocacy group wanted remote learning, ventilation upgrades

The Friday announcement came on the heels of a Thursday evening presentation by Protect Our Province B.C., an independent group of medical professionals, health scientists and community advocates who have been calling for stronger measures in the face of the pandemic – and now, in particular, in light of the Omicron wave.

Jennifer Heighton, a Burnaby teacher who’s part of the group, said the province should switch to remote learning for everyone until community transmission is lower – and, in the meantime, ramp up vaccination for students and booster doses for school staff.

The group is also calling for the province to implement better protections against airborne virus in schools, including provision of N95-style masks and upgrades to ventilation and filtration, with ongoing monitoring of air quality in classrooms.

Those suggestions were not addressed in the provincial plan.

New Westminster parents who want to know more about ventilation at their child's school can check out the School District 40 ventilation reports online.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
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