Toronto, Peel opt to close schools amid worsening third wave of COVID-19 in Ontario

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Toronto is the latest COVID-19 hot spot in Ontario to order schools closed while the provincial government maintains that classrooms are safe for in-person learning.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa issued the order on Tuesday, following similar moves by her counterparts in Peel Region and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph. Classes are to move online Wednesday in Toronto, with the closure to be re-assessed on April 18 when the scheduled spring break ends.

The health unit said schools should be the last places to close but new variants have increased the risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19 and strong measures are necessary.

"Unfortunately, current circumstances require that difficult decisions must be taken locally to protect all those in our school communities, including students, teachers and staff," Toronto Public Health said in a statement.

Toronto's move came amid growing calls from unions and politicians to vaccinate education workers against COVID-19 as new variants of concern are sending younger Ontarians to intensive care units that are being pushed to the brink.

Romana Siddiqui said her family had already decided to keep their three kids home by the time the Peel Region school closure was announced Monday.

"I knew it was going to be a matter of when, not if, schools would be closed, not to say that that's easy for people," she said Tuesday from her home in Mississauga, Ont. "I think it's necessary."

Siddiqui said her family will decide based on case numbers whether it's safe for their children to return to in-person classes after the spring break ends.

"We'll have to just take a wait-and-see approach," she said.

In regions where schools remain open, some parents still chose to keep their children at home, citing safety concerns.

Mark Fisher, a trustee with the Ottawa-Carleton District school board, said his family decided the two youngest kids would stay home this week, even though they will not have access to online classes, given the spike in cases in Ottawa.

"We looked at the situation from our own family circumstances and felt that it was best to keep our kids home this week and go into the break and, hopefully, that will cause a meaningful break in the transmissions locally," he said.

Fisher said he would have liked to see the board switch to online classes this week, and the province impose tougher stay-at-home measures.

The province has entered a four-week shutdown in response to a worsening third wave of the pandemic driven by more infectious and deadly variants. The move puts further restrictions on some businesses but leaves schools open for in-class learning.

Ontario's education minister has said that keeping schools open is crucial for students' mental health. A spokesperson said Monday that the province intends to go ahead with the break set to begin on April 12 and a return to in-person classes the following week.

Premier Doug Ford said on Tuesday that the government is focusing on vaccinating older residents and people living in communities with high rates of infection, including essential workers.

"I know we're working on a plan as well, for the teachers, and we'll be working along with the boards, the minister of education and the minister of health," Ford said.

He also maintained that schools are safe and infections happen in hot spot communities, not schools, pointing to data showing the vast majority of schools remained open.

"When the kids go back into the community, that's where it's happening. It's not happening in the schools. It's happening when there's community spread in hot areas," he said.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Tuesday that the government should "urgently" vaccinate education workers and use the upcoming April break to make other safety upgrades to classrooms.

Three teachers' unions have also asked the government to close schools for in-class learning in virus hot spots and offer vaccines to education workers.

According to government statistics, there were 1,062 schools in Ontario with at least one case of COVID-19, out of 4,828 total schools.

Meanwhile, two Niagara Region school boards said staff would be eligible for COVID-19 shots starting next week.

Shots will be administered on a voluntary basis at a vaccine clinic in St. Catharines, Ont., the Niagara Catholic District school board said Tuesday.

"Schools are microcosms of the community, and we know that we are not immune to being affected by community cases," Camillo Cipriano, the board's director of education, said in a statement.

The District School Board of Niagara said as many as 4,000 staff who work in schools will have the option to be vaccinated next week.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press