Ontario education minister considering cancelling March break to curb COVID spread

·3 min read

TORONTO — Ontario is considering cancelling March break in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, in a move educators and some parents say could lead to mass burnout.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he's waiting on the opinion of the province's chief medical officer of health before making a final call about the week off school.

"I will follow his advice and do whatever it takes to protect Ontario families," he said in a statement. "I believe Canadians should stay home and avoid travel given the emergence of these new variants."

On Wednesday, Lecce announced a plan to reopen schools that remain shuttered in parts of southern Ontario over the next two weeks.

Schools in Toronto, Peel Region and York Region are to reopen on Feb. 16, while those in other public health units where in-person classes haven't resumed reopen Feb. 8.

Lecce said he will base the March break decision entirely on "public health imperatives."

But the unions representing the province's elementary, secondary and Catholic school teachers said mental health should also be considered.

"We are living in unprecedented times that continue to create high levels of stress, fear and anxiety for everyone," said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario. "We have heard repeatedly that students, families and educators need a break right now."

He said travel-related concerns should be dealt with in other ways.

Jennifer Harris Bialczyk, a Toronto mother of two, felt similarly.

She went from celebrating Lecce's school reopening announcement with friends over Zoom — "we all had wine," she said — to wondering whether she'd have to cancel plans to visit her cottage over the spring break.

"I can see it both ways," she said. "I understand that the cases will likely go up if there is a March break. But I also think the kids, the parents, and the teachers all need a break."

She said the last month of balancing online learning and her own work has left her exhausted, so she was looking forward to some time off.

The federal government has instituted its own policies aimed at preventing travel over the spring break, announcing last week that four major airlines would halt flights from Canada to Mexico and the Caribbean until the end of April.

The provincial government has also introduced mandatory COVID-19 testing for all international arrivals to Ontario, and Ottawa has a similar program ramping up in the coming weeks.

In addition to the mental health concerns, there are some logistical issues at play, said Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation.

Many local collective agreements have a requirement for the number of school days in a year, he said, so if March break is cancelled and no days off are offered in lieu, it could lead to problems.

The government could remedy that by starting the summer break early, which Bischof noted is well within the ministry's rights.

NDP education critic Marit Stiles, meanwhile, said Lecce's comments teasing an announcement on March Break's potential cancellation are unfair to parents and educators who need time to prepare.

"They're just stringing everyone along, trying to build up some anticipation, but the problem is that it leaves people frustrated, scared," she said. "Real people have real lives and they need to plan."

Stiles said students, parents and teachers need the break because weeks of online learning has been stressful for all involved.

"I don't know what planet (the government) has been on, but this has not been a break for parents, or kids or on staff," she said. "It has been extraordinarily hard work."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2021.

--with files from Shawn Jeffords.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press