Schools in Peel Region will switch to remote-only instruction as of tomorrow and students in the Guelph area will follow suit on Wednesday.
Peel Region’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Lawrence Loh has used his discretionary powers under Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act to issue an order requiring the closure of all schools in Brampton, Caledon and Mississauga for in-person learning as of April 6.
The order will remain in effect for at least two weeks, meaning schools will not be able to reopen until after the delayed March break now scheduled for next week.
The moves comes just days after Education Minister Stephen Lecce told reporters that the Ford government had no plans to close schools amid surging COVID-19 case numbers and would instead have students return to “elevated” infection prevention and control measures and asymptomatic testing following the break.
“This closure is a necessary step to protect staff and students in Peel Region,” Loh said in a news release. “With increasing case counts and the presence of variants of concern, we need to break chains of transmission and keep our schools safe. I know this will be challenging for parents to navigate and we appreciate all the sacrifices parents continue to make as we continue to fight COVID-19 in our community.”
On Monday evening, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health said it is also moving to shut down in-person learning at all five schools boards within its jurisdiction: Upper Grand District School Board, Wellington Catholic District School Board, Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, Conseil scolaire Viamonde and Conseil scolaire catholique MonAvenir.
The order means that students within the WDG health unit will cease in-person learning as of Wednesday and will not return before April 19.
“I wish this step was not required,” Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer said in a statement. “I know the tremendous burden this places on families in our region. The growing number of cases across the province and the severity of the COVID-19 variants of concern places all of us at risk.”
Childcare centres will remain open
Children under six years of age who are not attending school will be able to continue to attend licenced childcare programs in Peel Region during the closure period but Peel Public Health says that children who are attending school will not be able to attend childcare centres or day camps so long as the order is in effect.
Childcare centres located in schools in Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph are not impacted.
The decision to close schools in Peel comes as COVID-19 case counts continue to surge, putting increasing pressure on an already overburdened healthcare system.
In an interview with CP24 following the announcement, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie conceded that the closure will be “challenging for many parents and frustrating for many teachers” but she said that it is the “right thing to do.”
She said that Peel Region is now “at the same level of case counts” as it was at the peak of the second wave in January and that hospitalizations are doubling every two weeks.
“Dr. Loh thinks the right thing to do is to really reduce the risk of transmission right now so schools is the first and I am letting you know that he is also looking at different and other restrictive measures as well,” she said.
Ministry officials have consistently contended that schools are safe but Ontario Science Table Co-Chair Dr. Adalsteinn Brown did tell reporters last week that “once infection takes off in the community the schools amplify it.”
In a statement issued following Loh’s announcement, a spokesperson for Lecce said that the Ford government’s “firm belief” is that schools across the province should be open for in-person learning.
“Due to our strong infection prevention measures, 99% of students and staff have no active cases of COVID-19, however we must remain vigilant and keep our guard up in order to keep schools safe and open,” the spokesperson said.
There are currently 63 individual schools across the province that have already had to temporarily move to remote-only instruction due to COVID-19.
Since the beginning of the school year, there have been more than 13,000 school-related cases of COVID-19 reported.
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), commended Loh for his decision to close schools as case counts and hospitalizations soar in the province.
"I am grateful to Dr. Loh for having made this decision. No doubt this is not an easy decision... When we look at what the metrics and the numbers are in Peel Region, they were extremely disturbing so I'm glad he is taking this step," Bischof told CP24 on Monday afternoon.
"I have no doubt that the members in Peel are relieved that they won't be back in classrooms tomorrow."
Other regions should consider closing schools: Bischof
Bischof said he would like to see similar action taken in other hot spot areas, including Toronto, Durham Region, Hamilton, and York Region.
"In those places where the metrics are deeply concerning, I'm absolutely hoping that that decision will be made. I think what we've seen here is Minister Lecce's claims that schools are safe are not to be trusted. We heard that in the words of Dr. Abdu Sharkawy yesterday when he said it is a myth that COVID doesn't spread in schools. We saw it in the actions of Dr. Loh today," he added.
"I hope others take that up as well in places where there is reason to be deeply concerned about the direction the numbers are going."
In a statement released Monday, Toronto Public Health (TPH) said the city continues to "closely monitor and assess COVID-19 cases" in schools.
"As of April 5, TPH is not recommending the shift to remote learning for schools in Toronto. TPH will continue to manage risk on a school-by-school basis, taking immediate and appropriate action to address these complex outbreaks," the statement read.
"This decision will be revisited on a daily basis, and further recommendations may be made in the near future in partnership with our local school boards and the province. TPH will continue to recommend early dismissal for individual schools upon investigation to protect students, staff, teachers and school communities."
The Toronto District School Board confirmed Monday evening that 11 more schools are being dismissed effective Tuesday to allow Toronto Public Health more time to investigate COVID-19 cases. All students at those schools are moving to remote learning.
Public health officials in Durham Region said Monday that staff are not planning to close schools at this time.
"Durham Region Health Department continues to closely monitor the situation in area schools. At this time, the health department is not planning to close any school boards. When necessary, individual schools may be closed due to school-wide COVID-19 transmission," a spokesperson for the Durham Region Health Department said in a written statement sent to CP24.
A statement from a York Region spokesperson indicates that officials have no immediate plan to close schools in that region.
"York Region Public Health continues to follow the provincial Reopening Framework; the province has prioritized schools remain open throughout all colours of the reopening framework, even whilst in the Grey-Lockdown Zone or the province-wide “emergency brake” shutdown," the emailed statement read.
"This guiding principle is supported by other organizations, including Sick Kids, indicating schools should be the first to open and last to close."
Dr. Vera Etches, the medical officer of health in Ottawa, confirmed Monday that her team is currently reviewing the data surrounding infection in schools in her region, which has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases over the past week.
"I am asking the province to implement further restrictions, including a provincewide Stay-at-Home order," she wrote in a tweet. "My team is in the process of reviewing the COVID data in schools to advise on an approach to take for schools in Ottawa."