Early in the new year, senior staff members of the Kamloops-Thompson school district returned to work to plan how the majority of students will return to classrooms on Jan. 10.
While children of teachers and essential workers resumed classes on Jan. 4, the rest of the student body will return on Monday.
Part of the changes parents and students should expect include renewed use of pandemic measures seen in the past, including as much physical distancing as possible, three-layer mask usage and virtual assemblies.
However, many of the complications are not expected to come from school itself, but from absenteeism among staff and students due to illness from the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Supt. Rhonda Nixon said senior staff spent the first few days back considering a number of “what if” scenarios.
"If we don't have enough custodians, then what? What do we do? How do we replace custodians?” Nixon said. “If we don't have enough bus drivers, how do we manage that? They went through every possible 'what if' scenario. And we did the same thing on the education side if students are away.”
That kind of planning has been necessitated by the emergence of the Omicron variant, which has shown to be much more contagious than previous strains.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside has announced that due to the number of cases and strain on the health-care system, the province can no longer make use of contact tracing to track individual cases in schools. Instead, a "proxy" would need to be used.
That proxy, Whiteside said, is the attendance level of a particular school or classroom. She did not specify how low attendance needs to be before a public health response is triggered, but did say that response will include rapid testing and an investigation by public health.
Nixon couldn't say with certainty how low attendance needs to go before public health gets involved, but she does have a plan on how to make that call.
"I did phone the Interior Health office and she gave me some very good advice. What we need to do is basically live this first week and get a baseline to see what percentage of students are away," Nixon said.
Absenteeism at school will be monitored on a case-by-case basis, Nixon said. She plans to report attendance numbers to her designated medical health officer on Monday morning, as soon as they're available.
"And I will let her know my areas of concern because we will have an idea by the reasons given and by talking to administrators first thing," she added.
Currently, the absentee monitoring system in place in the school district does not account for the reason a child cannot attend school. Nixon said that will be changing so the district can start monitoring data.
One year ago, as COVID-19 began to lead to cases in schools, the district reported an attendance rate of about 95 per cent. With the situation worse elsewhere, the province, as a whole, reported an attendance rate of about 85 per cent.
Nixon said that, given some parents chose to keep their children out of school as a precaution at that time, it's important the baseline is established in the first weeks after students return in order to get a clear picture of how Omicron is affecting schools.
While acknowledging the uncertainty of the situation, Nixon remains optimistic.
"We may not experience what others in other sectors are seeing because of how structured and how advanced some of the measures are that are in place. I'll have to see. It might be different in a week," Nixon said.
But one thing fairly certain at this point is that the district is not looking to make the shift back to online learning for all students.
One upside of Omicron is that its incubation period is much shorter than other strains of the virus and Nixon said she hopes students who have been off sick will be able to return to school much sooner than before.
"Our hope is that those students are back within a week and they're not going online," she said.
Nixon said when students make the transition between face-to-face learning and remote learning, they tend to be worse off.
"Our experience is that although we can do it, it's a lot of work for the teachers, a lot of work for the parents and the same for kids — and it's hard for kids to stay motivated," she said.
Nevertheless, students will be provided with learning packages via email, at the very least, while they are off sick, Nixon said.