Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce says an extended winter holiday for school children is “not necessary at this time.”

The idea had been floated as a possible way to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 as case numbers soar in the province. However Lecce said Wednesday that transmission levels are low in schools and safety measures there are sufficient.

“Our focus remains protecting the progress we have made in our schools this fall, as we look to and plan for the new year, so that students can continue to go to school each and every day,” Lecce said in a  statement. “We have consulted with the Chief Medical Officer of Health as well as the Public Health Measures Table and have determined that an extended winter holiday is not necessary at this time, given Ontario’s strong safety protocols, low levels of transmission and safety within our schools.”

There are currently 670 publicly-funded schools with a reported case of COVID-19 and three schools that are closed because of the illness. Ontario reported 109 new school-related cases on Wednesday.

Just a day earlier, Lecce said the province was considering the idea.

Earlier this year, an extension of March break ended up lasting through the remainder of the school year as the province struggled to get the first wave of the pandemic under control.

While Ontario’s numbers are higher now than they were then, provincial officials have been reluctant to return the province to anything resembling a state of lockdown.

Speaking at his daily news conference, Premier Doug Ford insisted that the “safest place for kids is in schools” and added that the cohort system is “working fairly well.” He said Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams was able to quickly reject the idea of an extended break.

“He (Lecce) showed it to Dr. Williams. Dr. Williams came back and said ‘no, this is the safest place,’ again reacting quickly, being decisive right away,” Ford said. “We want to come out here today and say that the kids will be in school.”

Lecce’s announcement about the school holidays came the same hour that a union confirmed a child and youth worker in the Toronto Catholic District School Board died after contracting COVID-19. The school board said a classroom where the person worked is now in self-isolation.

Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy told CP24 that while keeping schools open should be a priority in order to keep the workforce intact, neither will be able to continue if case numbers don’t come down.

“I'm increasingly getting worried about our case numbers rising, and I'm concerned about how long we'll be able to keep schools open,” Sharkawy said. “I don't know how realistic it's going to be to keep them open indefinitely if the numbers continue to trend in the way that they are.”

NDP Education Critic Marit Styles called on Lecce to explain why the idea was floated yesterday and then quickly rejected a day later.

“The minister should talk about what it was that lead to those comments yesterday and that speculation and why that changed today,” she told reporters at a news conference following Lecce’s statement. “We have cases in this province skyrocketing.”

She said more transparency is needed around the province’s decision-making and that more money should be invested in keeping schools safe if they are to remain open. She also questioned whether the province is asking Dr. Williams to justify decisions made by politicians rather than making decisions based on medical advice.

Sharkawy suggested it may be premature to say now that schools won’t have to close and said that if they do, it would have to be as part of a “more comprehensive” plan that would also support parents and businesses.

“I think ultimately if they do close, there has to be a plan in place to support parents who need to stay home who are not going to be gainfully employed anymore and for business owners who are going to be compromised in their ability to maintain operations,” he said.

He said if schools are closing anyhow for a break, it would make sense to allow them proper time for numbers to go down.

“It would make more sense to me that if there is going to be a holiday of any kind, to allow schools an opportunity to have their numbers come down in terms of outbreaks. It remains to be seen if that's going to be an eventuality here.”