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Back to school amid unprecedented Omicron wave

Students will return to in-person learning across the Valley on Monday following government announcements insisting schools are safe and will remain open despite an expected increase in infections. For students attending a school within the New Frontiers School Board, the return will take place a day later following a planned pedagogical day on January 17.

Premier François Legault confirmed an end to online learning during a press conference on Thursday, suggesting parents and school staff should be reassured by the fact young people are less impacted by the Omicron variant and the high vaccination rates amongst teenage students and those working in schools. Provincially, the vaccination rate for children between the ages of 5 and 11 is 61 per cent, while more than 93 per cent of students aged 12 to 17 have or will soon receive their second does. In the Haut-Saint-Laurent, just under 54 per cent of those 5 to 11 have received a first dose, and 77.5 per cent of those 12 to 17 are double vaccinated.

The government has promised 7.2 million rapid tests will be distributed to families of elementary and secondary students in the coming weeks and students will be given additional procedural masks so they can be changed more frequently during the day. School staff will have priority access to PCR tests as of Monday and will now be able to access rapid tests through their school. Carbon dioxide monitors will also be installed in classrooms to measure air quality, and schools with high CO2 levels will be able to request air exchangers from the government. Quebec has also instituted a new protocol for the management of cases within schools and has reduced isolation time for students who test positive to five days.

“I am concerned that this opening might not be an optimal situation for teaching or learning,” says New Frontiers School Board director general Rob Buttars, who expects the situation will vary between schools and could change from one day to the next.

“We will do everything we can to keep schools open, but everyone will have to understand that we will have service interruptions,” says Buttars, whose main concern will be communicating any staff shortages or interruptions in a clear and timely manner. “We know parents need as much time as possible to make other arrangements,” he acknowledges. “Thankfully, I think we’ve all become pretty good at pivoting on a dime.”

Numerous unknowns

At this time, the NFSB is anticipating service interruptions that could entail class or school closures, as well as cancelled busses, daycare, or cafeteria services. Students and parents should be prepared to move to online learning quickly in the event a class is closed.

According to Buttars, the NFSB will now be able to make decisions more locally as to whether a class or school should be closed based on the number of cases, absences, or available staff, whereas before, such decisions were mandated to local public health authorities. The NFSB is now only expected to communicate with public health officials if there are more than 20 active cases in a school.

Letters sent to parents of children in NFSB schools on Friday suggested parents can still expect to receive communications from schools if their child’s class is associated with a positive case, though PCR tests are no longer available to the younger age groups. Information on the general situation within schools may also be communicated with parents. Public health authorities have stopped contact tracing due to the high number of cases and limited access to PCR tests, and as a result, parents will no longer receive official letters indicating their child may have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

Buttars admits that as the return to in-person learning looms, he does not have a clear picture of possible staff shortages, as teachers and support staff have been working at a distance. He says a few cases were declared among those working in school daycares or special learning centres last week. “In terms of our parents, we really don’t know where they stand,” he says, suggesting the first few days of schools will reveal whether parents are hesitant to send kids back.

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