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Edmonton Public Schools wants COVID-19 clarity about what happens after holiday break

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Edmonton Public Schools says it wants more information on what the Alberta government has planned for students when they end a winter holiday break that was extended due to a surge in COVID-19 infections.

The school board's chairwoman, Trisha Estabrooks, says while the extension that will see classes resume on Jan. 10 is a relief for some parents and educators, other parents juggling work and their families are having a tougher time.

"While all of us have been living through this global pandemic for almost two years, I think it's in particular very tough on families with young children," Estabrooks said Friday during a news conference.

"I hear from parents who are struggling ... and so the decision to not return kids to school is a big one and weighs heavily. Any sort of extension to winter break has significant impacts on many families, but in particular, families who are living in poverty, for example.

"(So) the sooner we have clarity, the better."

Edmonton Public Schools is the second-largest school district in Alberta with more than 105,000 students.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced the holiday break extension late Thursday, just days before students were to return to school.

LaGrange said the government made the decision because the highly contagious Omicron variant poses additional risk to health and resources. The province has been reporting a record number of daily COVID-19 cases this week, including preliminary numbers of 4,000 infections on Thursday. 

The government has said school authorities can use the extended break to prepare for potential in-person and at-home learning scenarios as they have done earlier in the pandemic.

Estabrooks said the additional time will help schools and teachers prepare for whatever the government decides. She said parents want more information soon, particularly if it includes the possibility that students may return to online learning.

"The decision to move all classes online rests with the provincial government," Estabrooks said. 

"I know some parents I was speaking to earlier do have concerns about going back to online learning and there is some stress about that and I know there is a lot of unknowns at this point."

Estabrooks said they are also still waiting for more information on the government's decision to distribute 8.6 million rapid tests and 16.5 million masks to schools in the province starting the week of January 10.

She said the school district wants to know how the personal protection equipment will be delivered and how the results of the rapid tests will be reported.

"I would like some assurance that the rapid test kits and the masks will be in place when students return to school," she said. "That would go a long way to reassuring parents that there are extra measures in place."

Estabrooks said the district will need good clear data from Alberta Health Services and some certainty on the contact notification process for positive COVID-19 tests.

Jason Schilling, the president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said the extended holiday break was the "right call." 

"Omicron is a game-changer and health and safety practices in schools will need to be adapted – time is needed for schools to prepare," he said in a news release.

"We acknowledge that this abrupt change is challenging for parents and families, and their support and flexibility is appreciated."

Schilling said the association was not consulted by the government before it made the decision.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 31, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press