School board in Thunder Bay, Ont., wants classes moved online after COVID outbreaks

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A school board in Thunder Bay, Ont., has asked public health authorities to order a suspension of in-person learning after several COVID-19 outbreaks have forced hundreds of students to self-isolate.

The Lakehead District School Board urged the health unit to mandate virtual learning for at least two weeks starting March 1.

Schools have had to dismiss classes repeatedly because of COVID-19 cases, which is affecting students' learning, said board chairwoman Ellen Chambers.

“What we don’t want to have is (students) coming back to school and there’s another outbreak, so we have a back-and-forth and a back-and-forth," she said in an interview Wednesday.

Currently, 576 students and 55 staff with the board are self-isolating, and that has created a shortage in teachers and support staff, including bus drivers, said Chambers.

"We've run out of supply teachers to cover the elementary classes," she said.

"It's just unsustainable."

The school board, which has 26 elementary schools and four secondary schools, currently has four schools that are already teaching all classes virtually because of COVID-19 cases.

The Thunder Bay District Health Unit did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said this week that the province is closely watching the situation in Thunder Bay.

She said the province’s chief medical officer will review data and cabinet will decide later in the week whether the region should be locked down or move to another category of the pandemic restrictions framework.

In another northern Ontario region, public health officials dismissed students and staff from two Sudbury, Ont., schools on Wednesday following five confirmed cases of COVID-19.

All five cases have been identified by Public Health Sudbury and Districts as variants of concern.

Schools across Ontario were moved entirely online at the beginning of January as part of a provincial lockdown.

The government then gradually reopened schools for in-person learning, starting first with those in northern Ontario and rural areas.

The last schools to return to in-person learning -- in Toronto, Peel Region and York Region -- did so last week.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2021.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Denise Paglinawan, The Canadian Press