Ontario — Elementary school students won’t be going back to their classrooms on Monday, as the Doug Ford government has opted to extend online learning until at least Jan. 25 amid a recorded rise in COVID-19 cases among school-aged children since they were let out for the holidays.
The move kiboshes the originally planned Jan. 11 return to school for primary students until after the scheduled end of the current province-wide lockdown. High schoolers were already slated to return to classrooms Jan. 25.
The lockdown has also been extended in Northern Ontario for another 14 days, aligning with the rest of the province, as a result of the changes announced today.
“These time-limited measures are being taken to help ensure that all Ontarians stay at home as much as possible to minimize transmission of the virus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, while at the same time being responsive to the fact that Northern Ontario students are not able to learn at home as effectively due to limited access to reliable Internet service,” the government says.
“With the public health trends where they are across the province, our priority remains keeping students, teachers, school staff, and all Ontarians safe,” said Premier Ford. “That’s why we’re extending the remote learning period for students in Southern Ontario and the shutdown period for Northern Ontario, while continuing to provide financial relief for parents through the Support for Learners program as well as electricity rate relief for all time-of-use customers. We have to get the numbers down and today’s measures will help us continue to stop the spread of this deadly virus.”
Targeted testing done among students and staff in December 2020 confirmed that schools are “not a significant source of transmission,” according to the government, which is pointing to a sharp rise in children with COVID-19 in connection with “concerning behaviour over the holidays.”
The positivity rate for kids aged 12-13 years old increased from 5.44 per cent in late November and early December to nearly 20 per cent in early January, says the province of the “most troubling” development.
Returning students to school now with community transmission and positivity rates so high risks losing the hard-fought progress made in keeping schools and students safe, according to the government.
The government’s comprehensive plan of more than $1.3 billion to protect students and promote safe learning environments will continue to be in place to support students and staff. The plan includes expenditures on personal protective equipment, improved ventilation, money to support the hiring of additional staff, and the introduction of asymptomatic testing to screen against COVID-19.
“I have and remain firmly committed to getting students back into class as soon as possible — there is nothing more important. However, the best medical and scientific experts have been clear: while schools have been safe places for kids, the sharp rise in community transmission puts that progress and Ontario families at risk,” said Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education. “During this time, students will remain engaged in live teacher-led online learning with access to enhanced mental health and technology supports.”
Eastern Ontario Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis said Tuesday that officials were then discussing the pros and cons of extending the closure of elementary schools. “I’m borderline on that, looking at the numbers,” said Roumeliotis. “If there’s going to be any decisions, it should come sooner rather than later because we are approaching next week.”
Since the Dec. 26 lockdown commenced, trends in key public health indicators have continued to worsen in both Northern and Southern Ontario, including concerning trends in health system capacity, most notably in hospitals, the government says.
“In the last two weeks, we have seen concerning trends at home and abroad, as well as increased community transmission during the holidays, indicating that it is not yet the time to begin easing public health and workplace safety measures,” said Christine Elliott, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health. “While extending the shutdown in Northern Ontario is not the news many wanted to hear, we must work together to stop the spread of COVID-19, protect hospital capacity, and save lives.”
“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it is crucial that all Ontarians continue to follow all public health and workplace safety measures,” said Dr. David Williams, Chief Medical Officer of Health. “To help stop the spread of COVID-19 and safeguard health system capacity, Ontarians are strongly urged to stay at home, limit trips outside of their households for essential reasons only and must not gather with individuals outside of the people they live with.”
To support families during this extended school closure, child care centres, and home-based child care services will remain open. Ontario is also expanding eligibility for the Ministry of Education’s targeted emergency child care program for a broader number of frontline health and safety workers.
In order to continue to support remote learning, the ministry has recommended that a portion of the second half of federal funding, an additional $80 million investment, will be provided for additional technological devices, such as laptops and tablets, to support school boards in procuring about 160,000 additional devices province-wide.
Financial support is also available for families during this temporary remote learning period through the Support for Learners program. Starting on January 11, 2021, an expanded Support for Learners program is providing $200 for each child or youth up to Grade 12 and $250 for each child or youth up to age 21 with special needs. Applications will be open until February 8, 2021.
For those requiring additional support during this challenging period, Ontario is providing an additional $10 million in support of student mental health, including funding for Kids Help Phone to support children and youth across the province. School Mental Health Ontario will be providing mental health resources and strategies to support students during this period.