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Alberta to keep schools closed to students until Jan. 10 due to rapidly spreading Omicron

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Alberta will delay the return to school for kindergarten to Grade 12 students until Jan. 10 due to concerns surrounding the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

The holiday break extension will allow staff and school boards to better prepare for a return to classes, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange told Albertans in an announcement Thursday afternoon. Diploma exams for high school students will be cancelled; they were to start on Jan. 11.

"School authorities have already told us they need more time to prepare," LaGrange said. "I completely understand these concerns."

The 5:30 p.m. news conference had been announced just half an hour earlier, shortly after the education minister said she left a meeting with Premier Jason Kenney and cabinet colleagues. 

"Today's decision wasn't made lightly," LaGrange commented, adding the government wanted to share the news with Albertans as soon as it had been decided.

According to her, the rapid rise of the Omicron variant has school boards worried about potential staffing pressures, including teachers, bus drivers, maintenance workers, and educational assistants.

"Schools are expecting a high number of student absences, making it harder for teachers to manage in-person and at-home learning at the same time," LaGrange said.

The province's case counts of COVID-19 continue to surge, with 11,000 new infections reported over the last six days.

In an attempt to make the return to classes safer, the province will also deliver 8.6 million rapid tests and 16.5 million pediatric and adult "medical-grade masks" to schools in the week of Jan. 10.

The masks are not N95s, but are "more heavy-duty" than the cloth ones previously handed out and are rated for filtration, government officials said. Each student and staff member is to receive an eight-week supply of masks.

The province says the rapid test distribution will ensure each student and school staff member in Alberta has two test kits, with each kit containing five tests. Distribution details are still being finalized.

More information will come at an update late next week, LaGrange promised.

Any further changes to the resumption of in-person learning will be based on case information, health data, and "evidence-based" operational information from school authorities, the province says.

"With the COVID situation rapidly evolving, so too must our response be," she added. "Our plan to pause the return to school is in line with other jurisdictions in Canada."

BOLSTER PPE FOR SCHOOLS

The Official Opposition welcomed the delay of the return to classes but said the province needs to look beyond masks and rapid tests to give students a safer environment.

"Teachers need N95 masks. That has been clear for some time," said Sarah Hoffman, NDP deputy leader.

Her party is calling on the government to install HEPA filters and upgrade HVAC systems in schools. 

"Those are just some of the emergency measures we need to give our schools and the people working inside of them a fighting chance come Jan. 10."

Jason Schilling, Alberta Teachers Association president, said the delaying will be beneficial, alongside rapid tests and medical-grade mask distribution.

"But still many questions about other measures and details about government plans," he tweeted. "I would expect the minister to meaningfully engage with the ATA in the next week to seek further advice.

"We have been consistently providing reasonable and sound advice about the safest return to school as possible."

Alberta parents had mixed emotions and expectations leading up to the announcement. 

Calgary mom Lindsay Primrose wanted her three school-aged boys to attend classes in person as soon as possible.

"It's so unfair to them," Primrose told CTV News.

"In-person learning is so beneficial in so many ways for our children not only socially, but they are being educated by people who went to school to be educators."

Edmonton mother Kimberley McMann believes online learning is the safer option for her seven-year-old son.

"I think online is the better choice than being in person right now, with the number of cases, the lack of attention to ventilation and good PPE. Schools (are) just unsafe and it's making me really scared for my kids." 

OTHER PROVINCES

A number of provinces have delayed a full return to in-person classroom instruction in the new year.

Ontario announced on Thursday that students would return to classes on Jan. 5, a two-day delay to allow time for more safety measures to be prepared.

B.C. said on Wednesday that it would delay in-person instruction until Jan. 10, except for students who need extra support who will return to schools on either Jan. 3 or 4.

In Nova Scotia, the holiday break was extended until Jan. 10 to allow families to monitor for any developing COVID-19 symptoms before children return to classes.

All schools in Quebec will provide remote learning until Jan. 17, where possible. 

With files from CTV News Calgary's Stephanie Thomas and Michael Franklin

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