The Surrey Schools superintendent says the district is “anticipating the potential for what we call ‘functional closures’” when all students finally return to school following a staggered return.
On Dec. 29, the province announced a delay in return to school for students.
Schools across B.C. will re-open for in-person learning in January, but some students won’t return to class until Jan. 10.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the children of essential health-care workers will return to school Jan. 3 or 4. All other K-12 children will go back to school one week later on Jan. 10.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said that schools will be open for children of health-care workers, along with students with additional needs. She said that the extra time will allow schools to assess the impact of the Omicron variant and put in proactive new safety measures.
With that, Surrey school district Supt. Jordan Tinney said this week is a time to “sit and digest the new health orders,” noting that most staff were on holidays with some on international holidays when the announcement was made.
In an interview with the Now-Leader Tuesday (Jan. 4), Tinney said, “It feels a lot like Groundhog Day,” referring back to spring break in 2020 when the first closures were announced and then summer of 2020 when new measures were once again announced.
While the first day back was “really rather quiet,” with a “handful” of students in every school, Tinney said he wasn’t surprised. He pointed to back in 2020 when there was a voluntary return-to-school plan and the district’s numbers were “incredibly small.”
“We kind of overstaffed for day one because we didn’t know how many children would arrive.”
Asked what staffing levels are like, Tinney said, “given that people can work from home, largely, we don’t know how many people are reporting in absence due to COVID.”
He add that if someone has reported an absence due to COVID, the district’s category is “’COVID-related,’ so you could be caring for someone who has COVID, you could just be cautious being at home with somebody who is comprised.”
In a video released last week, Tinney said the “bulk of the planning” before the full return on Jan. 10 will be on the possibility of functional closures.
Functional closures are when a school “can no longer run because it doesn’t have the staff to supervise students or provide instruction,” explained Tinney. “It isn’t necessarily an outbreak, it just means we can’t run. Almost like a snow day where people can’t get to school, we can’t supervise children.
He added it’s “kind of an inception day, a day zero, where we would find out we don’t have sufficient staff, we can’t supervise the students, we can’t provide instruction, we would likely be dispersing the students, sending them home, sending home notices to parents and finding out whether or not staff would be returning in the next day or two or three or five.”
If a school does need to close, Tinney said the district would communicate with families, with a day for planning before moving “entirely online.”
“For how long, we’re yet to get really clear direction on that, but I believe it will be between seven and 10 days.”
Tinney said there were 15 cases in one office the week before Christmas. And then the week leading up to Christmas, Surrey saw a 400-per-cent increase in cases.
“I think people would agree schools are a mirror of the community.”
Meantime, Tinney said one of the biggest changes could be the COVID notification process between Omicron’s incubation period and the transmissibility, and people who are double-vaccinated with mild symptoms being told not to get tested.
“Contact tracing is literally the bedrock upon how we manage COVID and it also is the bedrock for our school notification process,” he explained. “But that’s not going to happen anymore. It isn’t sustainable or effective with Omicron, so it has to be replaced with something.”
What that change could be though, Tinney said, has yet to be implemented.
– With files from Katya Slepian