The Ontario government announced Thursday that it will be pushing back March Break by one month to keep students in the classroom and prevent further spread of more transmissible COVID-19 variants circulating in the community.

Speaking at Queen's Park on Thursday afternoon, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Ontario students and teachers will go on break during the week of April 12, not on March 15 as was previously scheduled.

The minister said the province is primarily concerned about the threat of COVID-19 variants now circulating throughout Ontario and Canada.

"The decision to postpone March Break has not been an easy one but necessary to keep Ontario families safe," Lecce said on Thursday afternoon. "This postponement also limits any further disruptions to students as they can return to in-person learning during a time that has been challenging."

Deferring March Break, Lecce said, was done in part to discourage travel and prevent people from gathering outside their households.

"We are governed by advice by the medical community to limit the potential for transmission and really limit or try to prevent a scenario we saw over the holidays where there was just a massive spike of transmission and positivity of our kids," he said. 

Ontario schools were switched to remote-only following the holiday break as case counts surged but the Ford government has gradually been allowing students to return to classrooms in recent weeks as case counts have declined.

Schools in an additional 13 public health units reopened on Monday, including Durham and Halton regions.

Meanwhile, schools in Toronto, York and Peel are set to reopen on Feb. 16.

The decision to delay March Break, Lecce said, was made in consultation with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams and other local public health officials.

While the province only has the authority to enforce this change in public schools, he said the government is asking all schools to follow suit.

"The message today to both public and private schools in this province is that they should defer the March Break," he said.

"We are very much expecting cooperation with us within the province of Ontario to reduce the potential for congregation, to reduce the potential risk that comes with these variants, because they are in our province in part because of the challenges we are facing at the border."

Lecce said the province also consulted with teachers unions, who had asked that March Break continue as usual this year. He said provincial health experts ultimately decided that deferring the break was the best option. 

Teachers' unions blast decision

In a joint statement, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), slammed the Ford government's decision.

"These are unprecedented times, and this is a much-needed break for students, teachers, education workers, and families who have been under tremendous pressure throughout the COVID-19 pandemic," the statement read. "The government’s decision to postpone March Break does not take into consideration the mental health and well-being of those involved."

The four major education unions in the province said the move is another example of the government ignoring experts and stakeholders and making "reckless and baseless" decisions.

"The postponement of March Break shows, yet again, the inadequacies of the Progressive Conservative government’s planning. If there are concerns related to travel and gatherings during March Break, these should be addressed by the government through other means," the statement continued.

"Why did Premier Doug Ford reopen the economy when it is clear risks remain? Is he concerned that his stay-at-home orders are ineffective? If so, he should address the real issue: this government’s ongoing failure to prevent the spread of COVID-19."

The unions' comments were echoed by NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who said teachers, parents, and children are "burnt out."

"We have to find a way to give everyone a Spring Break that’s safe," she said in a statement released on Thursday. "Just kicking the can down the road isn’t a solution.”