Despite progress on vaccine distribution, the Government of Ontario announced Monday afternoon that schools will not being returning to in-person learning after April Break. Premier Doug Ford, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams made the call even though barely 24 hours ago they were talking about the opposite.
“This was not a decision we made lightly, as we know how critical schools are to Ontario students. Our priority has always been to keep schools open, however sharply rising community transmission can put our schools and Ontario families at risk,” said Lecce in a statement. “While Ontario’s plan has kept schools safe, as confirmed by the Chief Medical Officer of Health, we are taking decisive and preventative action today to ensure students can safely return to learning in our schools.”
Although schools in Toronto, Peel and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph had all been closed in advance of April Break last week, the intention always seemed to be that schools would re-open, as scheduled, next Monday, April 19. Now, due to “increasing rates of community spread pose a threat to the health and safety of school communities,” public and separate schools will remain closed in definitely, while all provincial private schools will transition to remote learning by April 15.
Childcare for non-school aged children will remain open, and free emergency childcare for children of frontline health care workers will be made available. There will also be special provisions made for special education students who are unable to be accommodated through online learning. Like in-person learning though, before and after school programs will also be cancelled indefinitely.
Reaction from opposition leaders was swift and critical.
“Doug Ford marched us right into this all-schools shutdown by refusing to listen to experts, and refusing to invest to make schools safe,” said opposition leader Andrea Horwath in her own statement. “This cycle of shutdowns is awful for families and school staff. I’m worried for the students having their education disrupted again right as exams approach, and I really feel for parents, families and teachers now scrambling for child care and deeply worried about managing at-home learning again.”
“For the past year, the Premier has ignored calls by health experts, educators and parents for reduced class sizes, increased testing and tracing, and proper ventilation and PPE to keep students and staff safe,” said Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner in his statement.
“We all want to keep our children safe and in the face of increasing COVID numbers, Greens support closing in-class instruction. But the half measures must end. The flip-flopping must end,” Schreiner added. “Just yesterday, Minister Lecce sent an open letter promising enhanced safety measures and that schools would remain open.”
Indeed, Lecce posted an open letter on social media that outlined new and enhanced safety measures for the return to school post-April Break including cleaning, health and safety re-training, and expanded asymptomatic testing. “We are not taking anything for granted,” Lecce wrote. “To ensure a safe return from April break, we are adding additional layers of protection.”
“Grateful for the decision to postpone return to in-person learning, but this is a massive repudiation of Minister Lecce’s judgment,” said Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation president Harvey Bischof in a social media post. “Yesterday, he doubled down on keeping schools open. He’s forfeited any claim to speak for the well-being of students.”
“Ford praised the Minister of Ed and his team for the remarkable job they’ve done with on-line learning,” Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario president Sam Hammond added in his own statement. “Let me be clear Doug… teachers, education workers, and parents have made on-line learning work! They have spent months cleaning up the mess and the chaos of your Minister!”
In a more fulsome statement, Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association president Liz Stuart demand more action that just temporary closures. According to Stuart, the Ontario government also needs to reduce class sizes, initiate paid sick days, ensure universal asymptomatic testing at schools, and prioritize education workers in provincial hot spots.
“The Ford government must prioritize safety in our schools and properly invest in publicly funded education,” said Stuart. “Cutting $1 billion in education spending, as put forward in their recent budget, will make a dire situation worse, further threatening student success and safety.”
The province-wide COVID situation is indeed dire with 4,401 new cases of the virus on Monday, which is just 55 fewer cases from the all-time high on Sunday. More than half of the new cases have been connected to a variant of concern, including 2,153 cases of the B.1.1.7, or U.K. variant, according to Public Health Ontario.
“Just yesterday, Minister Lecce wrote to parents telling them that all publicly funded schools would remain open after the April Break. One day later, Doug Ford is closing them for weeks,” said Ontario Liberal leader Steven Del Duca in a statement. “The in-fighting between Doug Ford and his education minister is putting our children and education workers at risk, and Lecce should be fired for it.”