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Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce speaks during a sitting of the provincial legislature at Queen's Park in Toronto on Sept. 14, 2020.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario’s Education Minister says the government will not extend the winter break for its two million students even as the province continues to set records for COVID-19 infections.

Stephen Lecce released a statement on Wednesday that he had consulted with David Williams, the Chief Medical Officer of Health, and the public-health measures table on extending the winter break.

“We … have determined that an extended winter holiday is not necessary at this time, given Ontario’s strong safety protocols, low levels of transmission and safety within our schools,” Mr. Lecce said.

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Closing schools for a period of time has been the focus of recent discussions among educators and public-health officials. Provincial governments have been reluctant to close schools, even temporarily, pointing to the social and emotional well-being of children. However, as the pandemic caseload in communities increases, educators and public-health officials worry how this will affect classrooms.

Quebec Premier François Legault told reporters last week that an extended closing around the winter break was being considered, but he emphasized his reluctance to take such a drastic step.

In Quebec, schools accounted for 21 per cent of the province’s cases, an increase of five percentage points over five weeks, according to an analysis by The Globe and Mail.

In Ontario, meanwhile, where community case counts have been persistently high, schools accounted for 7 per cent of all cases. School boards have implemented a number of health and safety measures, including physical distancing and having students wear masks in classrooms.

The organization representing Ontario’s directors of education had requested the ministry extend the winter break so staff and students would not return to school buildings on Jan. 4.

Tony Pontes, executive director of the Council of Ontario Directors of Education, told The Globe last week that directors were worried about students and staff who may gather with their families over the December holidays and then return to school just days later. By reopening schools on Jan. 11, Mr. Pontes said, it would help schools remain open longer.

Mr. Lecce said the government will “closely monitor all indicators, trends and numbers,” but the plan was for students to remain in school.

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“We will continue to consider any option and take decisive action to ensure we deliver on this shared priority of keeping schools open in January and beyond,” he said.

Also on Wednesday, the Toronto Catholic District School Board said an education worker died after becoming infected with COVID-19. The 67-year-old was an employee at the St. Francis De Sales School in the Jane Street and Finch Avenue area. Students in one class, a teacher and the school principal are in self-isolation.

Brendan Browne, the board’s director of education, offered his “heartfelt condolences” to the family and school community in a tweet on Wednesday.

With a report from Chen Wang

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