In light of rising COVID-19 cases and the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, Alberta is extending the student winter break provincewide, and children in kindergarten to Grade 12 won’t return to class until Jan. 10.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange made the announcement Thursday evening after a COVID-19 cabinet meeting. She said the decision was “just finalized” and she wanted to share the news with Albertans as soon as possible.

LaGrange said education department officials spoke with school officials over the winter break and heard they were concerned about staffing challenges, not just with teaching staff but also staff like bus drivers, custodians and administration workers.

“They are worried about the rapid rise of the Omicron variant and the impacts on our schools,” LaGrange said.

She said schools are expecting a lot of absences and are worried about being able to manage in-person and online learning.

“School authorities have told us they need more time to prepare… and understand what Omicron means for their operations,” LaGrange said.

An update on next steps, including additional rapid tests and medical masks, will take place next week.

As of Jan. 10, Alberta schools will be provided with 8.6 million rapid COVID-19 tests, LaGrange said.

“That means two, five-test kits to every student and staff member across the entire education system.”

LaGrange said 16.5 million medical-grade masks will also be provided to staff and students.

“We are also cancelling January’s diploma exams, which were scheduled to begin on Jan. 11,” she said.

LaGrange said, at this point in time, these are all the changes the government is making to in-person learning.

“The cabinet committee is currently meeting and Dr. Hinshaw will speak to other possible measures tomorrow,” she added.

LaGrange reiterated that as the pandemic evolves, so too must the province’s response. She said education ministry officials would be speaking with school boards as soon as Thursday night and would be available over the weekend to answer questions.

The minister acknowledged this news will be tough on parents, who will have to make plans for an additional week at home with their children.

“Under very challenging circumstances, I am very grateful to parents, students, teachers and education partners for their resilience and flexibility.”

She said the decision was taken “very, very seriously,” and the cabinet committee had “a lot of discussion” about how this change would impact staffing shortages in other industries as some parents may have to stay home with their children instead of going into work.

“But again, we feel very strongly that we need to ensure that our schools are positioned well for success, that we have everything in place when we bring our students back to in-person learning.

“And right now we feel we need to add those additional measures of the rapid tests and the masks. So it is a decision that was made given all of that context.

“We do recognize that it will create some challenges for certain parents and certain families and my apologies for that. But unfortunately, Omicron has dealt us this circumstance.”

Earlier Thursday, the Ontario government pushed back the start of school to Jan. 5, 2022. That province also introduced capacity limits for large venues as it grapples with controlling the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

B.C. is also delaying the start of in-person school until Jan. 10 for most kindergarten to Grade 12 students.

Alberta Health announced Thursday that about 4,000 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed over the last 24 hours out of about 13,000 tests. That’s a huge jump from the record-setting 2,775 new cases reported Wednesday.

On Thursday, Alberta’s positivity rate sat at approximately 30 per cent.

There were about 21,000 active cases reported.

The Opposition is glad the return to class is being delayed and diploma exams cancelled.

But NDP Deputy Leader Sarah Hoffman said the UCP government still doesn’t have a plan to address Omicron or properly staff schools.

“We also need a plan to bolster PPE in schools. Teachers need N-95 masks,” she said. “The minister did not commit to N95s and that should happen first.”

Hoffman also said schools need HEPA filters and air filtration systems.

The NDP also wants to see funding for schools to address those needs, as well as funding for families for at-home learning and emergency childcare.

Hoffman said the UCP government waited too long to act, describing the lack of planning as “incompetent leadership.”

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