Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he won't hesitate to close schools if needed as many worry about a possible spike in COVID-19 infections as September approaches.
The premier made the remarks his daily briefing as the province recorded 114 new cases Monday and as four major teachers' unions announced they will file complaints with the labour board alleging the government's school reopening plan violates its own workplace safety laws.
"We're ready and we're going to move as soon as the outbreak happens. If it really starts taking off, I will not hesitate for a second to close the schools down," Ford told reporters.
His comments come as the province's total confirmed COVID-19 infections reached 42,309 since the start of the outbreak. On Saturday, the province saw 148 new cases — the highest daily case count since July.
At a news conference Monday, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams acknowledged the uptick was "concerning" and had many questioning if the province was moving too quickly on reopening. Williams also said some of the recent outbreaks are tied to clusters of infections at workplaces and gatherings of large groups against public health advice.
With back-to-school around the corner, Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe acknowledged many parents and children are feeling anxious, and said parents should review proper hand-washing and mask-wearing techniques with their children in the coming days.
Asked about the possible risks of large class sizes, Yaffe said, "Physical distancing is an important measure, but it's not the only measure," adding masks, handwashing, staying home if sick and cohorting can all make a difference when it comes to minimizing the risk of infection.
If there are instances where more than one case of COVID-19 is confirmed in a school and that transmission appears to have occurred in the school setting, officials could choose to close either certain classes or the entire school, depending on the circumstances.
Toronto, Peel, Ottawa account for majority of new cases
This 0.3 per cent increase in total cases comes as the province's network of community, commercial and hospital labs processed more than 25,000 test samples for the virus on Sunday, Health Minister Christine Elliott said in a series of tweets.
More than 700,000 tests have been processed in Ontario this month so far, with a positivity rate below 0.4 per cent.
Within the province's 34 health units, 30 reported five or fewer cases. Of those 30, 18 saw no new cases at all.
Toronto, Peel, and Ottawa accounted for a majority of new cases, with 41, 16 and 21, respectively. York Region also saw another 12.
The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 declined slightly to 49, two fewer than Sunday. There are also only 18 patients in the ICU, nine of whom are on a ventilator.
Meanwhile, one additional death due to the novel coronavirus was officially reported Monday. Since the outbreak, 2,811 people have died from COVID-19, most of whom were at least 80 years old, according to the province's epidemiological survey.
However, a CBC News count based on data from public health units, a measure that avoids lag times in the provincial reporting system, however, puts the actual toll at 2,840.
All of the figures in this story can be found in the Ministry of Health's daily update, which includes data up until 4 p.m. the previous day. The number of cases for any particular region on a given day may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit.
Teachers' unions file complaint to labour board
Last week, representatives from the unions met with the Ministry of Labour, requesting they set standards on safety precautions such as physical distancing and ventilation. However, the ministry did not respond in time, the unions say. Meanwhile, teacher and education worker unions announced they are taking legal action following what they called the Ministry of Labour's failure to "adequately respond" to their requests for "appropriate" health and safety standards in public schools.
The province's four unions, including elementary school teachers, secondary school teachers, French and Catholic teachers, say they will each file an appeal with the Ontario Labour Regulations Board on the grounds that the Ministry of Education's reopening plan "does not take every reasonable precaution to protect workers" as required by the Occupational Health and Safety Act, and that the Ministry of Labour did not comply with their requests set safety standards.
In a news release Monday, the unions said the actions they are seeking are in line with those that have been put in place at various workplaces across Ontario.
"The government is attempting to deflect blame for their inadequate school reopening plan by creating division among Ontarians. But union leaders have a responsibility to protect our fellow teachers and education workers, and we know we have the support of many parents, students, health experts and others," said Rémi Sabourin, president of The Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens.
At a news conference Monday, Premier Doug Ford said he couldn't understand the unions' perspective.
"We have done absolutely everything... Every idea possible, we're putting into the classrooms. If you compare the report card with all the other provinces, it's night and day... My concern is how at the peak of this, when it was running rampant, that PSWs walked into long-term care homes like firefighters walking into the burning buildings, and they don't say a word.
"The teachers unions just want to fight, they want to fight with everyone," Ford said, adding he distinguishes between the unions and the actual teachers, who said he will "do a great job."
Ford also added numerous teachers have come up to him personally to apologize for the behaviour of the union.
Ford was also asked why the number of positive cases required to declare an outbreak in schools is two, rather than one. He replied that that measure comes from the province's COVID-19 health table and that he is relying on the advice.
Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton told reporters inspectors with the province have contacted all of Ontario's school boards and are visiting them daily.
"The law is clear ... The act says that employers have to protect their workers from hazards on the job as well as infectious diseases like COVID-19. We have thousands of workplaces doing that and we're going to do it in schools as well."
Education workers should be treated as front-line: Liberals
Also on Monday, the leader of the Ontario Liberal Party is asking businesses to treat education workers as front-line workers.
Steven Del Duca said retailers and institutions have made life easier for front-line workers during the pandemic.
He said he would like to see teachers, caretakers, bus drivers, principals and support staff have special shopping hours, discounts on products and services, and increased childcare.
Del Duca said they'll soon be on the front lines of recovery and can use the help others are now receiving.
Most schools in Ontario are set to open in the next few weeks.
Many teachers and their unions have been critical of the province's reopening plan, which leaves much of the details to school boards.