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No plans to delay B.C. students’ return to class, despite new COVID-19 variant

Click to play video 'Anxiety is growing as B.C. kids get set to head back to class' Anxiety is growing as B.C. kids get set to head back to class
Anxiety is growing as B.C. kids get set to head back to class – Dec 31, 2020

With B.C. students slated to return to the classroom on Jan. 4, the emergence of a new variant of COVID-19 has renewed calls for the province to extend the winter break.

The new variant, first detected in the U.K. and confirmed to be present in British Columbia, is believed to be significantly more contagious.

Read more: Coronavirus: List of B.C. school exposures

“We remain concerned about the situation in B.C. schools, particularly in districts like Surrey where we have very high levels of transmission in the community,” Surrey Teachers Association president Matt Westphal told Global News, Thursday.

“In fact, we’re more concerned now, with the new variant of COVID.”

Click to play video 'Dr. Bonnie Henry on possibly delaying the start of school after winter break' Dr. Bonnie Henry on possibly delaying the start of school after winter break
Dr. Bonnie Henry on possibly delaying the start of school after winter break – Dec 22, 2020

Close to 3,000 people have signed a petition calling on the province to extend B.C.’s winter break.

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Along with tougher restrictions, the U.K. government has extended the winter break for millions of British students to Jan.11, though most primary schools will start up Monday as initially planned.

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Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday that B.C. has no plans for a similar delay.

“We thankfully are not in that position and we are watching very carefully for this variant here — but we have not yet seen a lot of spread in particular,” she said.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Government delays return of in-person classes for Ontario schools

“We pulled together a school task force to learn from what we have been through in the last few weeks and to pull things together and to re-establish that relationship and the communications, the tools that we need … so we have engaged in that process and people are preparing to make sure that we can go back to school safely next week.”

Click to play video 'Surrey teachers to Dr. Bonnie Henry: ‘We are not safe’' Surrey teachers to Dr. Bonnie Henry: ‘We are not safe’
Surrey teachers to Dr. Bonnie Henry: ‘We are not safe’ – Dec 16, 2020

In its Dec. 23 modelling update, the province said there had been COVID-19 exposures at 526 B.C. schools, more than half of them in the Fraser Health region. Outbreaks have been declared in four schools.

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However, the province maintains that despite the scores of exposure events, actual transmission in a school setting has been rare.

Read more: No mandatory masks in B.C. schools despite sweeping new COVID-19 orders

About 10 per cent of cases in the Vancouver Coastal Health region resulted in transmission, according to the province, while about 12.8 per cent of cases in Fraser Health resulted in potential transmission.

The opposition BC Liberals say that’s not stopped parents from seeking alternatives such as online learning.

“Parents would like to make a personal decision about kids going back to school,” Liberal Education Critic Jackie Tegart said.

“I think they have that right. But we need to provide options for them.”