All schools across Ontario will be closed indefinitely following the April break and students will once again be forced to learn online amid soaring COVID-19 case counts and record hospitalizations.

Premier Doug Ford made the announcement during news conference at Queen’s Park on Monday afternoon, just one day after Education Minister Stephen Lecce wrote a letter to parents reiterating his commitment to keeping schools open during the provincewide stay-at-home order.

Under the order, childcare centres will remain open but before and after care for school-aged children will not be offered.

“I know this is not what many of you want to hear. Minister Lecce and his team have done an incredible job keeping schools safe. But until we get the numbers in the community down to where we need them the problem is not in our schools, it is in our community and bringing our kids back to a congregate setting like school after a week of in the community is a risk that I won’t take,” Ford said in making the announcement. “We know that the more COVID spreads in our communities the more likely it is to get into our schools and that would create massive problems for all of us down the road.”

Ministry of Education officials have consistently contended that schools are not sources of transmission and remain safe.

However, last week the medical officers of health in Toronto, Peel and the Guelph area ordered all schools to close in their communities because of recent case growth, and a belief they could no longer quickly trace and test to isolate cases in school settings.

The co-chair of Ontario’s science table has also expressed some concern about the potential for in-person learning to accelerate the spread of COVID-19, telling reporters earlier this month that “schools really reflect the level of infection in the community and once infection takes off in the community the schools amplify it.”

“Let me be very clear: This pandemic moves rapidly and these variants move rapidly. When we received information late in the afternoon (on Sunday) we decided to act immediately,” Ford said on Monday when asked about his government’s apparent pivot. “I wish I could predict where this variant goes every single day. But again when we find out information we have to act. I am not ready to chance sending kids back to school when we have not even hit the peak with this variant.”

No timeline for schools to reopen

The Ford government last ordered the closure of schools amid soaring case numbers following the holiday break.

It then gradually began to reopen schools in late January, however students in Toronto, Peel and York did not return to the classroom until February 16.

At this point no timeline has been provided or when students might be able to return to the classroom this time around but Ford promised that his government “will keep a constant eye on the data to determine when kids can get back into the classroom.”

“No one wants our kids in school more than I do. That is where they belong but with COVID spreading like wildfire and with these deadly variants taking hold in Toronto we simply can’t be too cautious right now,” he said.

Liberals call for Lecce to be fired over mixed messaging

The move by the Ford government to close schools comes after his education minister all but rule out another widespread school closure and instead promised that students would return to “elevated” infection prevention and control measures following the break.

In a statement issued on Monday afternoon, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said that the “in-fighting” is putting our children and education workers at risk and called for Lecce to be “fired” for his role in sending the mixed signals.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also slammed the Ford government for its “flip flop” while speaking with reporters at Queen’s Park.

“Today's announcement was pretty shocking, considering just 24 hours ago Minister Lecce was assuring everyone that schools were staying open,” she said. “Doug Ford walked us right into this school shutdown with his eyes wide open. We all saw the modeling we know this was coming.”

Since late February, schools in the province have been tied to between 9 and 11 per cent of all known active cases of coronavirus at any one time.

Twenty-seven per cent of all schools currently have at least one active case among students and staff as of Monday, even with more than 1,000 schools already shut down.