The Ontario government has announced that students will not return to classrooms and will instead learn virtually until Jan. 17 due to the dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases across the province.
Premier Doug Ford announced the school closures during a news conference on Monday morning about the government’s new restrictions to curb the rapid spread of the highly-contagious Omicron variant.
“We need to prioritize the continued health and safety of our kids and our school staff,” Ford told reporters on Monday. “As a result, we will be delaying the return to in-class learning for the next two weeks and continue with virtual learning for the duration of the time away.”
“I know this isn't the news anyone wants to hear, but with a new variant the ground is shifting every single day.”
Most students have been home for the past two weeks for the holiday break. The premier said that publicly funded and private schools will move to remote learning starting Jan. 5 until at least Jan. 17, subject to public health trends and operational considerations.
School buildings would be permitted to open for child care operations and to provide in-person instruction for students with special education needs who cannot be accommodated remotely.
The province added that free emergency child care will be provided for school-aged children of health care and other eligible frontline workers.
The two-week delay for in-person learning is a strong shift away from the government’s original announcement a few days ago when Ford announced the return-to-school date would be pushed by just two days, from Jan. 3 to Jan. 5.
The government had said at the time that the two extra days after the winter break would give schools extra time to provide N95 masks to staff and to deploy 3,000 more HEPA filter units.
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the union representing public elementary school educators in Ontario, issued a news release following the announcement on Monday, renewing calls for “safety measures and a sustainable return to in-person learning.”
The union welcomed the premier’s decision, saying that the decision made in today’s announcement is safer than the one made last week, but that additional action is still needed.
“As the pandemic surges, the Ford government must invest in infection prevention and control measures that ensure in-person learning can continue safely and sustainably,” ETFO President Karen Brown said in Monday’s statement.
“Last week’s decision came dangerously close to risking the safety of students and ETFO members. We share the belief that in-person learning is the best and most equitable way for students to learn, but it must be safe.”
She added that the need for a return to online learning could have been avoided had the province "funded and implemented safety measures at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic."
“We recognize the hardships that come with another round of remote learning. To ensure this is the last time we need this emergency measure, we will continue to call on the Ford government to invest in adequate infection prevention measures," Brown said.
"We want to welcome students back to school as quickly as possible, but schools must be safe, and we need to see more than a press conference or two to be assured that they are.”
ETFO's demands to ensure schools are safe to reopen include:
- N95s must be available to all education workers;
- Everyone working in, or attending a school or campus who is eligible and can be vaccinated safely, should be vaccinated;
- Access to booster shots should be prioritized for education workers;
- HEPA filters should be installed in all classrooms and public/shared spaces in schools;
- Rapid Antigen Tests must be provided to students and education workers to minimize absenteeism and learning loss;
The union also noted that the province must continue to monitor and report COVID-19 cases and outbreaks in schools and ensure they are communicated to close contacts.
"The suspension of this practice has resulted in grave concern and hesitancy about a return to in-person learning, especially because additional infection prevention and control measures, like N95 masks, are not yet in place," the union stated.
Similar statements were also issued by The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF).
The Ontario government announced on Friday that it will no longer collect COVID-19 numbers from school boards and will no longer report the number of COVID-19 infections among students and staff starting this week.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said parents in the province are horrified by Monday's announcement.
“Doug Ford knew exactly what was coming, but didn’t prepare schools or hospitals, and didn’t take any precautions to prevent a lockdown,” Horwath said on Monday.
“He didn’t want to slow down big box holiday shopping, or invest in health care workers or more protections in schools. He made the same bad choices he made a year ago, and we’re all paying the price for that.”
Horwath echoed EFTO’s calls for greater safety measure in schools when they reopen for in-person learning.
When asked during Monday's news conferance whether or not in-person learning would remain closed beyond Jan. 17 if the COVID-19 situation does not improve, Ford said that Ontario will focus on slowing the spread of disease.
“The number one priority is to make sure that the kids have an opportunity to learn online that's absolutely critical,” Ford said. “But, we have to protect the overall system, when I talk about the system, I'm talking about the hospitalizations, the schools, the economy, the businesses, that's who we have to protect. We've never seen anything like this.”
Ford said the two-week closure will provide the province with the "much-needed time" to administer more vaccines and boosters. It will also allow for the new public health measures to blunt the rapid rise in cases, he said.
"These decisions will disappoint people, they will confuse some people and they will anger some people. As premier, these are the hardest decisions I make, but we follow the data, and the fact is this, Omicron spreads like wildfire," Ford said.
"If we do not act if we don't do everything possible to get this variant under control, the results could be catastrophic. It is a risk. I cannot take not after what we've been through."
The news comes on Monday as the province reported 13,578 new cases on Monday, 16,714 new infections on Sunday and a record 18,445 new cases Saturday, noting all three figures are considered underestimates.