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Ontario to shutter publicly funded schools until April 5 amid COVID-19 pandemic
Bryann Aguilar, CP24.com
Published Thursday, March 12, 2020 4:03PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, March 13, 2020 9:49AM EDT
All publicly funded Ontario schools will be shut down for two weeks following March break due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Thursday the decision was made based on the recommendation of Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams, and the COVID-19 command table.
Schools will be closed from March 14 through April 5.
"We are taking decisive action to keep your child safe," Lecce said at a news conference.
"Following this two-week period, we will evaluate the situation and decide if any further action is required."
Lecce said the closure is a precautionary measure to mitigate the risk due to the increase of travel during the break that could expose many students and families to the virus.
He said if the situation worsens, the province will swiftly implement advice from health officials, adding that science will guide all decision-making in the ministry.
The province is finalizing a plan that "will ensure learning continues" for students during the two weeks when schools are closed, Lecce said.
"I'm committing to parents that there is a plan. It is in place. It is being finalized in real-time," he said.
Lecce said the province recognizes the difficulty school closures will impose on parents, but he said the priority is ensuring the safety of students.
"We'll continue to work with the federal government and other levels of government to ensure that the programs that exist support parents that are affected by this. But I think the obligation I have is to take action to ensure safety and to listen to the medical advice," Lecce said.
The announcement does not impact daycare centres, Lecce's office said. It is up to school boards and local public health units to decide whether daycares should close.
Opposition leader Andrea Horwath said plans should have been in place before Thursday's announcement.
"Parents need to be assured that they can stay home with their kids and will not lose a paycheck if they do that and cannot be fired for doing that," Horwath said. "They need to know that that’s the case."
The announcement comes hours after the province reported 18 new confirmed cases of the virus, including two people under the age of 18 and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's wife Sophie.
Ontario currently has a total of 60 COVID-19 cases, with five recoveries.
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, said that anyone returning from travel abroad, including to the U.S., should "avoid group interactions and public gatherings wherever possible" and refrain from interacting with elderly people and those with chronic health conditions for 14 days following their return.
She said that people who have travelled within Italy, Iran and China's Hubei province, where the virus is most prevalent, should also be self-isolating for 14 days regardless of whether they are exhibiting symptoms.
Earlier in the day, the province also announced it would open six dedicated COVID-19 assessment centres in the coming days as it works to ramp up its response to the global pandemic.
Meanwhile, the union representing the province's elementary teachers said it is suspending planned rotating strikes that were set to begin on March 23.
“Following the March break, ETFO members will continue to engage in work-to-rule strike action but will not engage in full withdrawal of service rotating strikes that were scheduled to begin on Monday March 23,” said ETFO President Sam Hammond.
OECTA also announced that it would postpone its annual general meeting, which was slated to be held in Toronto March 14 to 16.
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said Thursday he had reached out to the government to offer cooperation “to ensure that our schools are safe.”
“In light of the rapidly developing Covid-19 situation, OSSTF/FEESO will welcome any opportunity to work with the Ministry of Education and Ontario’s school boards to ensure that our schools are safe places for our students, and for the educators who work with them,” Bischof said in a statement.
“To that end, we are writing to the Minister of Education, the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, and the Council of Trustees’ Associations to offer our cooperation and support in any efforts that will help to combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus.”
The OSSTF also announced Thursday that its annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly, which was scheduled to take place March 13 to 16, will now be postponed indefinitely because of the pandemic.
- with files from Chris Fox and Joshua Freeman