If COVID-19 clusters don’t force classes to go remote after students return for face-to-face instruction later this month, it is all but certain staffing shortages will.
Public and independent school leaders are preparing contingency plans for high absenteeism among educators, upon the widespread return to kindergarten to Grade 12 buildings on Jan. 17.
"We are going to be faced with the reality of having to shut down a class because we don’t have a teacher, or shut down, let’s say, a portion of the school for five days until teachers have self-isolated and tested, should they become ill," said Reg Klassen, superintendent of the Frontier School Division. "I’m concerned about that, but that’s a reality."
Updated isolation rules require anyone who is symptomatic or has tested positive for the virus, including via rapid antigen test, to immediately self-isolate for a minimum of five days.
(Despite recent changes to testing eligibility, K-12 students and education staff can still get a PCR test at a provincial site.)
There has long been concern about shrinking substitute lists, which are especially dire in rural and northern communities, across the province throughout the pandemic. Some substitutes have decided not to work this year to limit close contacts.
In the spring, when the highly infectious Delta variant — which is not nearly as transmissible as Omicron — took hold, high numbers of unfilled substitute requests prompted some schools to go remote.
"(Remote learning) will either be imposed now or by emergency later," said Lauren Hope, a mother and teacher in Winnipeg, who co-founded the Safe September MB movement.
Safe September MB has repeatedly called on the province to mandate vaccination for all students and education staff, prioritize educators for booster shots, and introduce frequent and widespread rapid testing in school communities, as well as CO2 monitors, HEPA filters and KN95 or N95 masks.
As far as Hope is concerned, readjusting desks to be spaced out further apart for Jan. 17 is nowhere near enough to prevent the transmission of Omicron and keep teachers at work.
The latest hue of code orange (the restricted level on the provincial pandemic response system) in schools will be slightly different than it was in 2020-21, given updated provincial protocols and vaccine availability.
Alan Campbell, president of the school boards association, said the focus is on bolstering cohorting and expanding distancing. Some divisions may also try to recall staff who were hired last year to address requirements to spread out students into multiple classrooms, he said.
This time around, the province has supplied divisions with rapid test kits for K-6 students and requested three-layer medical masks be worn by both education employees and pupils inside schools. Music classes, indoor phys-ed and extracurriculars may continue with masking and physical distancing in place, where possible.
High school students should also remain in-class full time, the province has said, although Frontier leadership indicated its schools may have no choice but to resort to alternate-day learning.
"Because of the level of vaccination, we’re able to do things differently and we’re able to run school closer to normal, even with significant spread of the new variant," said Brian O’Leary, who oversees the Seven Oaks School Division.
Vaccine uptake rates among high schoolers and staff in the division are just under 90 and 98.5 per cent, respectively.
Even still, as a growing number of staff must isolate in the coming weeks, O’Leary said priority for substitutes will go to the earliest grades, teachers could be asked to cover for colleagues, and guidance counsellors, clinicians and other support staff may be called upon.
Closing down a classroom, cohort or school temporarily is a last resort in every corner of the province.
Ted Fransen, superintendent of Pembina Trails School Division, said he anticipates new guidelines around school contact tracing protocols will soon be introduced, as a result of Omicron.
While all schools are remote next week, Fransen said families can expect much of the same they have experienced during previous at-home education stints.
Elementary and secondary students will be tasked with a mix of independent and real-time lessons, while kindergarteners are encouraged to engage in meaningful play.
Fransen, however, said curriculum may have to take a backseat if educators need to focus on student well-being concerns.
"Remote learning is second-best to in-person, and the isolation, we know from last time, created all sorts of issues and concerns for students and their families," he said. "We need to be very mindful of the impact of that."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.