Thousands of parents are petitioning the provincial government to extend the holiday break by two weeks in B.C. schools in light of growing COVID-19 concerns.
The petition urges provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to delay the return to classrooms given the new, highly contagious coronavirus variant first documented in the United Kingdom, as well as anticipated new infections resulting from gatherings over the holidays.
“To be sure that it is safe for students to return, we ask that Dr. Bonnie Henry extend the winter break for all B.C. students and make a new plan on how to safely return to school,” the petition reads.
Jeni Haskett, a Vancouver parent, said she and her son, who is in high school, are worried about returning to school on Monday.
“The government is telling us that we can't do anything with anybody outside our households, yet they're asking us to send our children to schools where they're going to be with many different people from many different households and it's just very conflicting, very confusing,” she said.
When she signed the petition a few days ago, there were just a few hundred signatures.
As of Saturday afternoon, there are over 17,000 signatures.
“It's climbing every day. So, I think that that's a good indication of what a lot of people are feeling,” Haskett said.
She said a two-week extension is a good starting point, but she would ultimately like to see a hybrid model featuring both in-classroom and remote learning.
“We really need to think about these things when sending our kids to school,” she said. “If there's one or two cases (of the new strain) on Vancouver Island, chances are there's a lot more out there.”
Surrey high school teacher Lizanne Foster believes the extra time to prepare would help teachers make classrooms safer.
“We need time to organize ourselves so that we can be ready for whatever this new variant is going to be throwing at us,” she said.
“I just think that if you're really concerned about student health, you would want to have some time to ensure that you can have measures in place that will ensure their protection, like a mask mandate, fewer students in class so there's more distancing and better ventilation. It really is a no brainer. Why wouldn't you do that?”
The Ministry of Education said transmission levels remain low in schools, adding the latest modelling shows seven in 10 schools have not had an exposure to the coronavirus.
“We will continue to work with the (provincial health officer) and our education partners to ensure K-12 guidelines and school district safety plans are providing the safest possible learning environments for students and staff as we navigate a global pandemic together,” said B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside in an emailed statement to CTV News Vancouver.
She said any decisions to change the scheduled school breaks would be made by the provincial health officer.
At the last provincial update before the new year, Henry gave no indication that would happen.
She said a school task force was formed in November with the deputy minister of education and Dr. Réka Gustafson, the deputy provincial health officer.
“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 and the tools that we need, we have engaged in that process and people are preparing to make sure that we can go back to school safely,” Henry said.
While B.C. hasn’t changed its stance, other provinces are postponing the return to in-class learning.
Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario have mandated remote learning for some students starting Jan. 4, before returning to the classrooms later in the month.