TORONTO — All schools in southern Ontario will remain closed for in-person learning until Jan. 25, a move the government said was needed to protect students and staff from surging rates of COVID-19.
The province's top doctor said Thursday that students in 27 southern regions who began their winter term with online classes this week will continue to be taught virtually as the government adds new safety measures in schools.
Dr. David Williams said he had recommended the move reluctantly, but it had to be done to ensure schools can stay open once in-person learning resumes.
"I know this is a tough one," Williams said of the extended closure. "This is tough for everyone."
All students are currently learning online as part of a provincial lockdown that began Boxing Day.
Elementary students in southern Ontario were supposed to return to schools next week, along with all students in northern Ontario.
The province said northern Ontario students will still return to in-person classes on Monday, but a lockdown in that region that was to lift this weekend will be extended for two weeks.
Ontario's education minister will announce new safety measures for schools in the coming days, Williams said.
The extended school closure was announced as Ontario reported 3,519 new cases of COVID-19 and 89 more deaths -- both daily highs for the province.
Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario's Provincial Outbreak Response Co-ordinator, said the new daily records are disappointing.
"Clearly, the numbers keep going up despite the provincial lockdown," he said.
Premier Doug Ford said earlier Thursday that he received new data indicating COVID-19 positivity rates amongst children have been increasing.
"The number one priority is not to put our kids in jeopardy and I will never do that, especially at the rates we're seeing," Ford said during an appearance at a Toronto hospital.
The premier defended his government's plan for schools during the pandemic, stressing that the virus is being transmitted in the community and through family gatherings.
On Wednesday, the province's largest teachers' union had called on all local public health units to reconsider reopening elementary schools next week.
The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, which represents 83,000 educators, said health units should use their authority to intervene, especially where transmission rates are high.
On Thursday, the union's president said the Ford government's mishandling of the pandemic had led to the need for the school closures.
"The safety of students and educators can simply not be guaranteed in much of the province,” Sam Hammond said in a statement.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the province should not reopen schools in the hardest hit regions without additional safety measures in place.
“That means making immediate investments in a ramped up, robust in-school asymptomatic testing program, and capping class sizes at 15, so everyone in schools can physically distance," Horwath said.
Nadia Goode, a Grade 7 and 8 teacher in Peel Region, said she spoke with her two classes about staying online and their reaction was bittersweet.
"While we want to be back in school and we're not particularly overly fond of the online learning we're aware of the fact that this is more of a safety thing," said Goode.
"I think there's an understanding that it's not ideal but that this is a necessary move."
For parent Andrea McGuire of Richmond Hill, Ont., Thursday's announcement was not the news she was hoping for.
With two kids at home – a four-year-old in junior kindergarten and a six-year-old with ADHD in Grade 1 – she said she’d all but given up on remote learning after Tuesday.
“I couldn't get anything of my own done, because one of them would need me every five minutes to click a link or go over to a different page,” McGuire said Thursday.
She said her older daughter is impatient to return to school and the socialization and one-on-one supports she gets there.
“She gets bored super easily and needs constant things to do, which school was providing for her,” McGuire said. “She would come home so happy. Now she doesn’t even like being at home.”
The president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association said given the increasing rates of COVID-19 across the province, it is important to follow the advice of medical experts.
"We must also be seeking to mitigate the impacts that increased screen time and a lack of face-to-face social interaction with peers and adults outside of the home will have on students’ mental health, learning progress, and development," Cathy Abraham said in a statement.
- with files from Nicole Thompson and John Chidley-Hill.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly reported that all schools would be closed to in-person learning until Jan. 25. In fact, the extended closure applies only to schools in southern Ontario.