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British Columbia is delaying the full return to classrooms in January to allow public health officials to assess the impact of the COVID-19 Omicron variant and give school staff time to implement enhanced safety measures.

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said Wednesday staff and students whose parents are health workers, as well as those who need extra support, will return to schools Jan. 3 or 4. All other students will return to classrooms Jan. 10.

"We have to ensure we have the foundations in place to keep our schools safely open," Whiteside said.

The announcement came amid a surging wave of COVID-19 cases driven by the fast-moving Omicron variant.

Enhanced safety measures include pausing extracurricular sports tournaments and plans to control crowding at schools, such as through staggered recess and break times.

School gatherings like assemblies and staff meetings will be held virtually. And visitors to schools will be limited to those supporting activities that directly benefit learning and well-being, including meal program volunteers, Whiteside said.

The measures mirror those implemented early in the pandemic and they are on top of safety measures already in place, such as maximizing space between people and ensuring those who are able wear a mask.

The B.C. Teachers Federation said in a series of tweets following the announcement that it was pleased with the protections that were added but questioned how public notifications about exposures and clusters at schools would occur in light of the new variant.

"We were disappointed that the announcement offered no indication that boosters will be fast-tracked for (the education system), nor did minister Whiteside commit to making N95 masks available in schools or proactively addressing the outstanding ventilation concerns in many schools," it said.

Parents of students needing extra support before Jan. 10 are encouraged to contact their school principals.

#BC delays return to class for most students until Jan. 10 over #COVID19. #BCPoli #OmicronVariant

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the order for a phased school restart Wednesday as B.C. reported a daily record of 2,944 new COVID-19 cases.

Henry said there is no plan to shift to remote learning, adding the purpose of the delayed school start is to get systems in place to ensure classrooms can remain open.

"This is just giving us more time to deal with the situation we're in and to plan for things like absenteeism," she says.

Five more people have died since Dec. 24 and 193 people were in hospital, including 66 in critical care. There were 16,014 active cases confirmed through testing.

"On average, there's probably three to four times the number of people who truly have COVID than what is in our surveillance numbers on a daily basis, and that is something we have seen throughout this pandemic," Henry said.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province is continuing third-dose immunizations based on age, but 240,000 people who have received invitations to book a booster have not yet done so.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 29, 2021.

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