VICTORIA — Two schools have stopped in-person classes in British Columbia, just two days after most students returned to classrooms following an extended holiday break due to the surging COVID-19 Omicron variant.
The Education Ministry said Tuesday schools in Hazelton and Surrey recently made the decision to enter "functional closure."
Ginger Fuller, secretary-treasurer of the Coast Mountain School District, said officials will meet Wednesday to decide when to reopen Hazelton Secondary School to regular classes after it was closed because of a staff shortage.
She said due to privacy concerns she could only confirm the closure was a result of illness.
A message to parents and caregivers posted on Hazelton Secondary School's website says there are two ways a school can be functionally closed: either by Northern Health Authority recommendation due to the COVID-19 case count or safety concerns related to a shortage of staff.
"The school district may close a school due to a shortage of staff to be able to provide a required level of student safety," says the notice to parents. "This would likely be due to a high absenteeism of all staff or certain employees required for a school to function and the inability to replace those absences."
The ministry said the independent Bibleway Christian Academy in Surrey has also suspended in-person classes.
No one from the school was immediately available to comment.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said school administration officials, including principals, make decisions about closing in-person classes and moving to temporary online teaching.
"Local staff in our districts and everyone in our education system is working very, very hard to do everything we can to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 so we can continue to keep kids connected to in-person learning," Whiteside said in an interview.
"These are challenging times. Let's hope we move through them quickly," she said.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said that this week's full return to in-person classes was positive for students, who benefit emotionally, socially and intellectually in school environments.
"These are the best places for children to be," Henry said Tuesday, acknowledging many people are feeling "a lot of anxiety" about the return to classrooms.
"It will be bumpy over the next few weeks as we get through this wave," she said.
Whiteside said the ministry will monitor student attendance levels over the coming days as well as keep watch on numbers for teachers and staff while schools face the challenges of the Omicron variant.
"We don't have firm (attendance) numbers yet," she said. "We have some anecdotal reporting in from different parts of the province that indicates there is indeed a somewhat lower attendance than what would be normal for the week, but nothing dramatic and nothing firm yet."
Stephanie Higginson, the B.C. School Trustees Association president, said Monday there were higher-than-normal rates of student absences at some Interior schools following the holiday break.
The decision to extend the break until Monday helped teachers and staff prepare schools for a safe return to classes, said Whiteside.
"I'd say that the week of preparation time that we did last week at the direction of public health was a very important investment in time and opportunity for staff, educators and school-based and district leadership to develop enhanced safety plans," she said.
Whiteside said the safe-return plans also include provisions for "the potential need for short-term transitions to home-based learning."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2022.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press