In-person learning at elementary schools across southern Ontario won’t resume for another two weeks following an uptick in positivity rates among children that coincided with the holiday break.

Students were scheduled to return to classrooms on Monday following a week of online learning but the reopening of schools has now been pushed back until Jan. 25 for the 27 health units in southern Ontario. In-person instruction will, however, still resume at elementary schools in northern Ontario on Monday due to the lower case counts there.

The announcement, which came via press release, comes just days after Education Minister Stephen Lecce sent an open letter to parents in which he reassured them that elementary schools would reopen on Jan. 11 as scheduled.

“When you get information that is startling as recently as yesterday that suggests we need to change course for a time limited period to keep these schools open and get them back open, obviously we accept that advice as we have every step of the way,” Lecce told CP24 on Thursday afternoon when asked about the late notice given to parents. “Look, the impacts on working parents and the kids themselves are real and we appreciate that. I know this has a very real impact and it is not a decision we wanted to make. But at the end of the day now that we know objectively the data points of an alarming spike in congregation and in COVID cases over the holiday I just don’t think any objective person, not withstanding the difficulty, could go forward.

The decision to extend the closure of elementary schools for in-person learning comes in the wake of CTV News Toronto obtaining data which suggested that the COVID-19 positivity rate among elementary-aged children nearly tripled over the last month as cases surged across the province.

The data suggests that the positivity rate among children ages 4 to 11 rose from 5.22 per cent during the week of Nov. 29 to 15.66 per cent during the week of Dec. 27, as the number of children testing positive in a one-week period jumped from 580 to 720.

The increase was even more stark among children ages 12 and 13. The positivity rate in that group went from 5.22 per cent in late November when 187 children tested positive to nearly 20 per cent by the end of December when 284 children tested positive.

The positivity rates in every other age group tracked by the province also increased over the last month in lockstep with the rising case counts but not to the same degree. In fact, in many age groups the increase in positivity rates was one-third to one-half of what was seen amongst elementary-aged children.

Speaking with reporters during a briefing earlier on Thursday afternoon, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams conceded that the extended closure will be “tough” for many parents but he said that he believes it necessary to give the government time to put in place a number of additional precautions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 amid record levels of community transmission.

“We are trying to get the right balance here where we have a deferral of the reopening for two weeks while we get these other things in place because we want the schools to be open and we want them to stay open,” he said. “Our methods that we put in place before in the fall in my mind have to be enhanced especially around areas of surveillance and monitoring and promptness and readiness. These aren’t simple things where you turn a switch on. You have to put a lot of things in place and we are working on that at this time.

Ford says holiday gatherings may be contributing factor in rising positivity rates

The Ford government initially ordered that all elementary schools would be remote-only from Jan. 4 to Jan. 11 and that secondary schools would be remote-only until Jan. 25 as part of a provincewide lockdown that went into effect on Boxing Day.

Government sources, however, told CTV News Toronto on Thursday morning that the “alarming" rise in positivity rates "raised significant concerns about kids returning to school next week."

“Before the Christmas holiday, we saw positivity rates of three per cent (among students) and now the information I received as of late yesterday afternoon is that it has jumped 116 per cent, let me repeat that 116 per cent,” Premier Doug Ford said during a photo op on Thursday morning. “It just goes to show you the education plan that (Education) Minister (Stephen) Lecce put out there was working but as soon as we went through Christmas everyone got together and now nearly one in every five children under the age of 13 are testing positive.”

Union had called for extension of school closure

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario had previously called for an extension of the online learning period while the provincial lockdown is in place, arguing that it “makes no sense” for students to return to the classroom during a provincewide lockdown.

But officials for the Ford government had continued to insist that schools would reopen as scheduled, arguing that there was no widespread evidence of transmission.

“We think this is a prudent decision given everything that is happening in the province but we are also very concerned that that this government’s lack of planning and delay in making decisions in fact creates more chaos,” ETFO President Sam Hammond told CP24 on Thursday afternoon. “You know we have been calling for reduced class sizes, an increase to a minimum of two metres of physical distancing, masks for everyone in schools, enhanced ventilation systems and on and on and on. I just hope that now we are going to see this government say that they are going to implement more safeguards and standards across the province than have been in place in the past.”

On Thursday, Williams said that he believes schools can safely reopen later this month though he did acknowledge that the province may have to pivot if the transmission of COVID-19 continues to worsen.

For his part, Lecce said that he understand that “certainty is the priority” and that “a lot of parents just want to know what is going to happen”

The education minister, however, refused to provide any specifics about the level of community transmission, which would make it difficult to safely reopen schools.

“Our commitment is to get these kids back and we are absolutely on the side of parents that want kids in schools. That is our commitment and we are going to do everything humanly possible to get there,” he said.

There have been more than 7,000 school-related cases reported since the beginning of the academic year but the Ontario government has not updated the data since the holiday break began on Dec. 22.