Ontario's two million students will not return to in-person learning until at least January 17 as the province grapples with a "tsunami" of COVID-19 cases, Premier Doug Ford said Monday, reversing his government's announcement from just four days ago.
At a news conference in Toronto, Ford said the province needs "to prioritize the continued health and safety of our kids and our school staff," as he announced new restrictions aimed at curbing transmission of the highly infectious Omicron variant.
"We'll be delaying the return to in-class learning for the next two weeks and continue with virtual learning for the duration of the time away," Ford continued.
"I know this isn't the news anyone wants to hear, but with the new variant, the ground is shifting every single day."
According to Ford, "the level of absenteeism" being seen in other sectors "tells us with absolute certainty that operating schools [and] ensuring teachers are on the job and not home sick will be a challenge we cannot overcome in the short term."
WATCH | Premier Doug Ford defends decision to close schools for at least two weeks:
The two-week delay will provide much needed time for more Ontarians to get vaccinated, particularly with a booster shot, he said.
"It's more time for additional public health measures to blunt the rapid rise in cases," he added.
The premier said he is aware that "online learning isn't ideal," but above all else, he wants to provide students and parents with certainty, "not the turmoil of school closures, because not enough staff are available to teach our kids."
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said delaying the start of in-person learning gives the province more time to protect both students and education workers.
"Certainly, the time that we have now from the fifth to the 17th for schools gives us extra time to be able to provide access for students, for workers in that environment to best protect them to have a safe opening," Moore said.
"We're constantly reviewing best practices in the school setting to keep them as safe as we can."
On Thursday last week, Moore said that students would be returning to class in-person on January 5 instead of January 3. The two-day delay was meant to provide time for the province to provide N95 masks to school staff and to deploy 3,000 more HEPA filter units.
In interviews following his earlier announcement, Moore said schools would be safe for a return to classrooms.
Critics slam government's reversal
Meanwhile, the government said school buildings would be permitted to open for child-care operations, including emergency child care, and to provide in-person instruction for students with special education needs who cannot be accommodated remotely.
During the period of remote learning, free emergency child care will be provided for school-aged children of health care workers and other eligible front-line staff, the government said.
Critics were quick to point out Monday that the potential impact of the escalating Omicron situation was clear from other jurisdictions where the variant took hold earlier.
"Yet again, this government decided to take a 'wait-and-see' approach to see how bad it was going to get before they decided to take action," New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said, pointing to the hardships ahead for families, workers, small business owners and the health system.
"It's a horrifying situation, and it really did not have to be this way."
She also argued that better wages and support for health workers could have helped alleviate staffing pressures worsening the situation in hospitals.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca accused Ford of heightening families' anxieties by backtracking on the school decision. Others, including a coalition of childrens' hospitals, raised concerns about the mental health impact of another widespread school closure.
The union representing elementary school teachers said moving classes online temporarily is safer than the plan announced last week, and called for greater protective measures in schools to accommodate the return to class.
"We share the belief that in-person learning is the best and most equitable way for students to learn, but it must be safe," said Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario.
Toronto parent Lauren Bondar called the decision to delay in-person learning "so disheartening." She said previous school closures impacted her six-year-old son's learning and development and forced her to scale back on her job to look after him.
"We're taking women out of the workforce," she said. "As a society we are just going back to a time that I never thought in our generation of adults we would be at."
She said she wants to see more safety measures in schools so kids and parents can benefit from in-person learning.