Premier Doug Ford says the government is keeping all schools in Ontario closed to in-person learning indefinitely following the current school break.
The government had previously maintained that schools would reopen next week but unions had called for schools to close in the absence of stronger safety measures.
“We are seeing a rapidly deteriorating situation with a record number of COVID cases and hospital admissions threatening to overwhelm our health care system,” said Premier Ford.
“As I have always said we will do whatever it takes to ensure everyone stays safe. By keeping kids home longer after spring break we will limit community transmission, take pressure off our hospitals and allow more time to roll out our COVID-19 vaccine plan.”
Ford argued that schools are safe but said the province must “do everything possible” to bring infections down during the “critical” next few weeks.
Elementary and secondary schools in the province are to move to teacher-led remote learning when students return from the break on April 19.
Private schools operating in-person this week are to transition to remote learning by April 15.
Ford says data will be assessed on an ongoing basis and health officials will be consulted to determine when it will be safe to resume in-person learning.
This is a rather unexpected shift, as Education Minister Stephen Lecce issued a letter to parents on Sunday that wrote all publicly funded and private elementary and secondary schools would stay open for in-person learning despite the province’s stay-at-home order.
Lecce said Monday that while it is the government’s priority to keep students and the education system safe, he is becoming more concerned about the recent increase in COVID-19 cases.
“Despite these efforts, we recognize the threat posed by rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, increase in hospitalization, and the pressure our healthcare system experiencing as a result,” said Ontario’s Education Minister.
“This worrying trend will leave us in an impossible situation if we do not act immediately.”
Child care for non-school-aged children will remain open, before and after school programs will be closed, and free emergency child care for the school-aged children of eligible health care and frontline workers will be provided.
“This was not a decision we made lightly, as we know how critical schools are to Ontario students. Our priority has always been to keep schools open, however sharply rising community transmission can put our schools and Ontario families at risk,” said Minister Lecce.
“While Ontario’s plan has kept schools safe, as confirmed by the Chief Medical Officer of Health, we are taking decisive and preventative action today to ensure students can safely return to learning in our schools.”
Lecce on why he sent a letter just yesterday indicating schools would stay open,says “We made this decision, as difficult as it is, with wanting to lower these community rates” “We want to tackle the root cause of this which is community transmission”
— Richard Southern (@richard680news) April 12, 2021
The announcement came days after a provincewide shutdown took effect in light of skyrocketing infections and hospitalization numbers.
Spring break began Monday after the province postponed it in March to discourage travel during the pandemic.
The province reported a test positivity rate of 9.5 percent, up from 7.7 percent a day ago and 7.8 percent last week. It is the second-highest positivity rate the province has recorded since the start of the pandemic.
There was a rate of 9.7 percent on Dec. 29 and Jan. 4 during the peak of the second wave.
Last week, Lecce said that enhanced safety measures will be put in place to protect students and staff once they return from the April layoff.
“We’re going to be encouraging outdoor education. More outdoor learning where it is possible this Spring and Summer. We know it has helped us in the Fall,” said Lecce at the time.
“We’re going to be strongly urging as much education, experiential outside in our parks, in our playgrounds to make this learning experience possible but safe.”
The Ford government’s decision to shelter schools for in-person learning comes after multiple public health units, most notably in Toronto and Peel, issued a Section 22 order to close all schools for two weeks and move to remote learning only.
Immediately following the announcement, Liberal Party leader Steven Del Duca issued a statement calling for Lecce’s dismissal.
NEW – Ontario Liberal leader Steven Del Duca calls for Education Minister Lecce to be fired. pic.twitter.com/WL9ScoUVG6
— Richard Southern (@richard680news) April 12, 2021
Toronto’s top doctor says that at the current rate of transmission the city could see 2,500 new COVID-19 cases per day by the end of April.
Medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa said Monday the surging rates are being driven by more transmissible variants of concern in the community.
De Villa says the current record for daily cases in Toronto is 1,642 and was set during the second wave of the pandemic.
She says the city is vaccinating more people against the virus but that still won’t be enough to offset the impact of the variants.
De Villa says people are moving less since the new stay-at-home order has come into effect, but not in every part of the city.
Unions have called for all teachers to be vaccinated before in-person learning resumes. Beginning Monday, teachers in identified hot spots in Toronto and Peel are now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.
The government is also expanding the number of pharmacies administering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to people aged 55 and over this week.
An additional 700 pharmacies are now offering the vaccine, with another 100 expected to join the immunization campaign by the end of April.
The province reported 217 new COVID-19 in schools today, including 186 in students. 2,629 cases have been recorded in the last 14 days.
With files from The Canadian Press