Elementary and secondary schools across Western Canada have reopened following the Christmas break as provincial governments faced criticism from teachers over what they say is a lack of protective measures against the COVID-19 Omicron variant.
Schools in British Columbia and Alberta reopened on Monday with health and education officials stressing the need for in-person learning. Schools in Saskatchewan returned the previous week as scheduled.
The leaders of teacher unions in Saskatchewan and British Columbia have been critical of how the reopening of schools has been handled and the stress it has placed on staff.
"We have situations where learning assistants, or learning resource teachers, who are specialized teachers are being pulled out of their duties into classrooms to cover staff shortages," said Patrick Maze, the head of the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation. "The learning program suffers when you have this many transitions going on in the schools."
The president of the BC Teachers' Federation agreed with those concerns. Teri Mooring said teachers want greater access to N95 masks in schools as well as priority for booster vaccines.
Four B.C. schools announced functional closures this week, meaning there was not enough staff to teach students.
"We're concerned there will be a lot more functional closures. It's hard for us to understand why the additional safety measures we're calling for aren't being put in place," Mooring said in an interview.
She said refusing to accommodate the union's requests could lead to a staffing shortage in schools.
"We think with those safety measures teachers and support staff are more likely to stay healthy," she said. "This whole issue of doing the bare minimum has always been a problem in education. We'd like to see a more preventive approach rather than a bare minimum approach."
B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said in an interview that teachers would not be prioritized for vaccines and the government has taken steps to manage risks posed by the virus.
"It is a balancing act. One thing we have been very determined about in B.C. ... is to ensure we keep children and youth at the centre of our decision-making. We know how important it is to have access to in-person learning," said Jennifer Whiteside.
But Cameron Phillips, a parent and Vancouver secondary school teacher, said he questions if the B.C. government is thinking about the long-term health effects facing students.
Phillips said he and his wife, who is an elementary school teacher, decided to keep their kids home this week as they assess the COVID-19 situation in schools.
"As a parent, I'm concerned about the future health of my children," he said. "As a teacher, I love my kids. I love my students. I know the school I teach at has many multiple generation families. There are so many students in my classes who are terrified of taking it home to auntie or grandma and causing suffering or havoc in their families."
Phillips said he's "baffled" by the reluctance to provide N95 masks to students and staff, and would like to see improved ventilation in schools.
Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said schools have done a commendable job of continuing in-person learning in a safe way.
"One thing we've seen is how important it is to maintain in-class learning as much as possible while accepting some higher transmission, which is not just unique to school, this is happening in health care, schools, all workplaces," he said.
In Alberta, as the number of Omicron infections hit a record high this week, the president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association said he’s concerned about students’ future in classrooms because "community spread is echoed in schools."
“I anticipate we're going to have more of what we saw this year but it might be intensified so we'll see more absences, we'll see more inabilities for schools to fill absent teachers,” Jason Schilling said Friday.
Alberta has left it up to schools to contact trace infections.
Hundreds of students and dozens of teachers were reported absent on the Edmonton Public Schools board website on Thursday. Out of 105,151 students under the division, 3.16 per cent were absent due to COVID-19 and 3.56 per cent were absent due to other illnesses.
The Calgary Board of Education also said its absent rate for kindergarten to Grade 12 students was 20.2 per cent on Wednesday.