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Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott take part in a media availability with members of their cabinet ahead of meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on March 12, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government has ordered all public schools in the province to close for the next three weeks, as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The announcement, which impacts about two million elementary and high school students, means schools will remain closed for two weeks after next week’s March Break.

The decision was made on the advice of Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, and Ontario’s health experts. Education Minister Stephen Lecce issued a ministerial order to close all publicly-funded schools between March 14 to April 5.

“We are taking decisive action to keep your child safe,” Mr. Lecce told reporters at Queen’s Park.

He said the government will evaluate next steps during the two-week closure, but assured that students will continue their studies. He did not say whether this would be through online learning.

“There is a plan that is being finalized that will ensure learning continues in this province,” he said.

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath urged the government to come up with a plan for workers and businesses who will be impacted by the school closures.

As the news was announced, Ontario’s Catholic teachers’ union also said on Thursday that it had reached a tentative deal with the provincial government, the first of the four teachers’ unions to settle after months of labour unrest.

Speaking with reporters, Dr. Williams said anyone who travels outside of Canada during March Break should keep their children out of public settings – including daycares – for 14 days. He also said gatherings of more than 1,000 people should be postponed.

“Those who travel, especially [during] March Break, if you choose to take your children with you – when you come back, you’re going to be asked to keep the children out of public settings,” he said.

Dr. Williams said children should not go to public venues – such as museums or malls – upon return from travel. He also advised against travel unless absolutely necessary. The province now has 54 active cases, with seven cases from people who have travelled to the United States.

The move comes after Premier Doug Ford told families to go ahead with March Break travel plans and “have a good time” despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shortly after he made the comments, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau entered self-isolation after it was announced his wife was being tested for the virus.

Mr. Ford was asked Thursday whether his government would follow the lead of New Brunswick, which has implemented an unprecedented two week-ban from public schools and daycares on all students, children, staff and parents who have recently travelled internationally.

“I just want the families and their children to have a good time. Go away, have a good time, enjoy yourself,” Mr. Ford told reporters at an event in Ottawa. “We’re going to be monitoring the situation as it changes every single day.”

The spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues, with more cases diagnosed in Canada. The Globe offers the dos and don'ts to help slow or stop the spread of the virus in your community.

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In contrast, federal health minister Patty Hajdu told reporters on Thursday that Canadians should consider a “staycation” and stay in Canada during March break. “There are lots and lots of places in our country that many people have never been to and this would be a great time to stay home,” she said.

Alberta has also recommended that anyone over 65 or with chronic health conditions not travel outside Canada.

Meanwhile, Ontario legislators passed a government motion that would allow it to suspend the legislature, if necessary, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Ontario government also said Thursday that it is putting off planned budget cuts to local public health agencies as they scramble to deal with the threat of COVID-19. But it is not pledging to permanently stop the cuts, which are part of a plan to make municipalities pay more for such agencies. However, Mr. Ford did announce a $100-million contingency fund Thursday to deal with COVID-19.

Amid a series of other new COVID-19 measures, the government said local public health units will get another year of transition funding, designed to limit the cuts they face this year to 10 per cent. This means their budgets will be flatlined in 2021 instead of facing steeper cuts.

In Ottawa, Mr. Ford was asked why he is not permanently reversing the cuts to public health agencies.

“We’re taking it year by year,” he said. “I can make it very clear: we will do whatever it takes to make sure that we take care of the people of Ontario.”

But this still leaves municipalities covering for reductions to the provincial contribution to public health this year in the middle of a health crisis, said Toronto City Councillor Mike Layton. And it means the planned cuts are still set to continue after 2021. (This year, the city had to cover an additional $4.5-million in public health costs.)

“I am frankly surprised they would make such a short-sighted decision, given the global pandemic that we’re in,” Mr. Layton said.

The initial plans, which only emerged following the 2019 budget, prompted a backlash from Toronto Mayor John Tory and other municipal leaders, forcing the Ford government to modify its funding changes last year to soften the blow.

Health Minister Christine Elliott also said recently that consultations on her plan to amalgamate Ontario’s 35 public units into as few as 10 in order to save $200-million would be extended, as local health officials must focus their efforts on COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the province outlined a series of other measures Thursday, including designated, separate assessment centres in or near six Toronto-area hospitals, with others to follow across the province in the coming weeks.

- with a report from Marieke Walsh in Ottawa

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