Staff at Toronto’s largest school board are calling on the province to stop in-person learning for the first two weeks of January and conduct asymptomatic COVID-19 testing in all the city’s schools.

Teachers and education workers with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) made the request formally in an open letter on Wednesday to Ontario’s health and education ministries and their school board, as well as Toronto Public Health.

“We believe that out of an abundance of caution. This request, these requests, should be taken very seriously,” Leslie Wolfe, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, said on Wednesday night.

“We are very concerned for high risk neighborhoods in the City of Toronto, for the kids that we teach in those neighborhoods, and of course for our own members.”

Last month, the province launched a pilot project that conducted asymptomatic and voluntary testing at some schools in Toronto, and other hot spot regions. Eight schools within the board were chosen to undergo the targeted testing.

The asymptomatic testing resulted in the identification of several cases of the disease, and the closure of two Toronto schools.

“We are calling … to extend this pilot project in order to assess the prevalence of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases in schools across the city on a regular and ongoing basis,” the teachers wrote.

“In addition, we are calling … to move all Toronto schools to online learning beginning January 4, for at least the first two weeks after New Year's Day.”

The closure is to ensure that schools do not “contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the post-holiday period” and to prepare for “regular, ongoing, school-based, voluntary asymptomatic testing” when students return, the letter stated.

The letter said staff at the school board are trying to avoid the so-called “Thanksgiving affect,” which contributed to the current rise in infection numbers.

“We want you to ensure that schools cannot contribute to a similar surge-effect on positive cases after the winter holidays,” the letter stated.

“We are calling for these actions to protect the health of teachers, education workers, our students, their families, and the community at large, and to provide access to data on asymptomatic case transmission within schools.”

Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa told reporters at a news conference on Wednesday that people between the ages of 14 to 17 represent the age group with highest number of positive cases (11.6 per cent).

De Villa stated that she is concerned about the holidays and the impact it will have on schools. She added the city should “be willing to consider options.”

“I do think we need to be concerned about what behaviours are going to look like over the course of the holiday season and how that might contribute to ongoing spread of COVID-19 and, in fact, worsening of COVID-19 spread in January,” she said.

“Education decisions clearly need to involve the school board and the ministry of education, but I think we should be willing to consider options.”

In a statement released Wednesday night, a spokesperson for Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce reiterated that schools remain safe spaces for learning.

“Our government believes it is so important for our students to continue to go to school,” the spokesperson said.

“While all provinces contend with rising community-based transmission, the best medical experts have made clear that cases are overwhelmingly not being transmitted within our schools – the risk remains from our community.”

Wolfe called the Ontario government’s response on Wednesday “disappointing.”

“The picture in Toronto is very different and it was rather disappointing to hear the same speaking points paraded back out by the minister's spokesperson when it has nothing to do with what's going on in Toronto,” she said.

The Toronto District School Board said in a statement on Wednesday that it would follow the education ministry's lead on the issue.

"Switching to remote learning as a way to curb the spread of COVID-19 is part of a broader conversation that would impact a number of different school boards," the board said. "As such, we would take our lead on this matter from the ministry of education, ministry of health and Toronto Public Health.”