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A deflated ball at the empty yard at Regal Road Public School in Toronto on April 7, 2021.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government is closing schools across the province and moving to online learning indefinitely, a decision that comes after the Education Minister publicly pledged to keep classrooms open.

The sudden switch was made as tens of thousands of educators in the hot spots of Toronto and Peel Region became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations during this week’s spring break, although they were warned they may not get an appointment immediately.

Local health officials in Toronto and Peel, as well as Guelph, already closed schools in their regions last week to in-person learning until at least the end of this week’s April break. While Ontario Premier Doug Ford has repeatedly said schools are safe and will stay open, the government abruptly reversed course on Monday, blaming rising case counts, fast-moving variants and a “massive spike” in hospital admissions.

Mr. Ford said bringing children back to school after a week off in the community is too risky at this time.

“The problem is not in our schools, it is in our community,” Mr. Ford told reporters at Queen’s Park. “The more COVID spreads in our communities, the more likely it is to get into the schools. And that would create massive problems for all of us down the road.”

He said the government will weigh COVID-19 data – including case numbers, hospital capacity and ICU admissions – to determine when in-person classes can resume, but gave no official date.

On Sunday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce penned an open letter to parents explaining what protocols would keep schools open – where local officials had not already closed them – during this month’s stay-at-home order.

But on Monday, he said the government will communicate to parents when children can return, based on advice from Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams. “It just has to be safe,” he said. Schools in Thunder Bay and Sudbury have also been closed to in-person learning since March and students are learning remotely.

Childcare centres will stay open for children too young for school, but not after hours, and special-needs children who cannot learn remotely will be able to attend school, the government said.

Ontario schools have been closed to in-person learning on more days than any other province. Educators and many families have called for classrooms to be closed because of rising case numbers, even as concern grows about the mental health and social well-being of children whose schooling continues to be disrupted.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath accused the government of leaving parents scrambling and said the situation could have been avoided by reducing class sizes and upgrading ventilation. “People are feeling like our province is dissolving into chaos. And that sits at the feet of Doug Ford,” she said.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said Mr. Lecce should be fired, and called for all education workers to be vaccinated over the break.

Meanwhile, special education teachers across the province and educators in hot spots in Toronto and Peel became eligible for vaccinations this week. School boards have been asked to provide a letter to eligible teachers to book vaccines through the provincial telephone line.

But not all staff will be able to get vaccinated this week, according to a memo from the Toronto District School Board.

“It’s important to note that while staff referenced below are now eligible to book a vaccination appointment, it is now our understanding that the actual date of the appointment may not be this week, but in the weeks ahead, as vaccine supply becomes available,” said the memo to staff.

While the school closings appeared to catch some local health officials off-guard, they were widely supported.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, who called recent COVID-19 case counts “extremely troubling,” said he supported the provincial decision to stop in-person schooling.

“We have to do everything we can to make sure that our children are safe,” he told reporters.

At the same briefing, Toronto Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa noted that “many experts” had concluded there is “some risk” of COVID-19 associated with school attendance.

Monica Hau, associate medical officer of health for Peel, said due to high rates of COVID-19 in Peel, “we support the province’s decision to switch schools to remote learning until the picture in Peel improves to further reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools.”

Ottawa Public Health said closing schools “underlines the seriousness of the situation and assists people to stay at home as much as possible, reducing mixing of students before and after school.” York Region’s medical officer of health, Karim Kurji, said prior to Monday’s announcement, he had already begun discussions with school boards to move to remote learning after spring break. “Things have changed rapidly this past week,” he said.

With reports from Caroline Alphonso and Oliver Moore in Toronto

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