Most Ontario elementary schools will remain closed until at least Jan. 25 amid mounting alarm at rising COVID-19 infection rates among children over the Christmas break.
Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer for health, said schools in southern Ontario will not reopen for in-class learning Monday as had been planned.
Williams said Thursday that online learning will be extended by a fortnight for junior kindergarten to Grade 8 students in southern Ontario.
That affects students, teachers, and parents in Toronto, Peel, York, Durham, Halton, Hamilton, Ottawa, London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Windsor, Sarnia, Kingston, among other cities.
Jan. 25 is the same day most high school students, who are currently learning online, are expected back in their classrooms.
But the province’s top doctor warned that if cases continue to jump — especially with a new, more contagious U.K. variant of the virus — in-school classes for all grades could be further delayed.
“In two weeks, if everything all goes wild and we go up to 6,000 to 10,000 cases (a day) we might be in a whole different situation,” said Williams on a day when the province reported a record 3,519 new infections.
Queen’s Park is also extending the current province-wide lockdown period by two weeks to that date for northern Ontario.
All northern Ontario schools, however, will open classrooms on Monday as scheduled due to low numbers of COVID-19 cases there and slow internet speeds that hinder online learning in remote areas.
That means students will be back in class in Muskoka, Sudbury, Timmins, Thunder Bay, North Bay, and Sault Ste. Marie, among other communities.
“With the public health trends where they are across the province, our priority remains keeping students, teachers, school staff and all Ontarians safe,” said Premier Doug Ford.
“That’s why we’re extending the remote learning period for students in southern Ontario and the shutdown period for northern Ontario,” said Ford.
“We have to get the numbers down and today’s measures will help us continue to stop the spread of this deadly virus.”
Earlier in the day, Ford noted infection rates skyrocketed over the winter break.
“Before the Christmas holidays … we saw positivity rates of three per cent. Now, the information I received as of late yesterday afternoon, that has jumped (by) 116 per cent,” he said.
“It just goes to show you the education plan that Minister (Stephen) Lecce put out there was working. As soon as we went through Christmas, everyone got together.”
But NDP MPP Marit Stiles (Davenport) blamed the Progressive Conservative government for not investing enough “to make schools safe to reopen in the coming days.”
Stiles said Ford “chose not to invest in our children, or the safety of teachers and education workers.”
“If the Ontario NDP were the government today, we would implement a broad in-school asymptomatic testing program, cap class sizes at 15, and ensure kids return to schools with properly ventilated spaces where they can always physically distance,” she said.
Education union leaders echoed that.
“Due to the government’s mishandling of the pandemic, the safety of students and educators can simply not be guaranteed in much of the province,” said Sam Hammond, president of the 83,000-member Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.
The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, which represents 45,000 educators, said “once again, the Ford government has belatedly taken some steps toward catching up with what most Ontarians already realized … that it makes no sense to reopen schools while the spread of COVID-19 appears to be out of control.”
Indeed, a Campaign Research poll for the Toronto Star found 54 per cent of respondents said they were “not confident” children would be back in elementary schools classrooms on Monday as had been planned.
Just 37 per cent said they were “confident” that would happen and 10 per cent were unsure.
Similarly, 52 per cent were “not confident” high school would have students in classrooms as of Jan. 25 as was scheduled while 38 per cent were “confident” and 10 per cent weren’t sure.
Using Maru/Blue’s online panel, Campaign Research polled 1,034 people across Ontario from Monday through Wednesday.
It is an opt-in survey, but for comparison purposes, a random sample of this size would have a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
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