Quebec, Manitoba and New Brunswick have become the latest provinces that will temporarily keep children out of class in a bid to limit the spread of COVID-19, following Ontario’s lead to extend its spring break for students by two more weeks.
In Quebec, Premier François Legault said on Friday that two million children will be out of schools and daycares for at least two weeks starting on Monday. He made his announcement one day after he and his public health officials said they would not take such a step until they had cases of community transmission. The province’s spring break was last week.
“I want to tell parents, I know this will cause a big jigsaw puzzle, but we have a big challenge in the next few weeks to ensure we have the fewest cases possible that spread into the community," Mr. Legault said.
Manitoba Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said at a news conference on Friday that the government was suspending classes effective March 23 and for three weeks, which includes the week before spring break and the week after the break.
Mr. Goertzen said the goal was to “stay ahead” of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. He said that teachers would be asked to remain on the job for the week before and after spring break to prepare lessons for their students to complete at home where possible. Other staff would prepare schools for the return of students, which could include cleaning and maintenance.
“We believe that our schools are safe. However, the experience in other provinces and other parts of the world tells us that pro-active measures lessen the impact of the spread of COVID-19 and lessens the negative impact on individuals,” Mr. Goertzen said.
New Brunswick’s provincial government announced public schools will close for two weeks, starting Monday. Early learning and child-care facilities, including those located in schools, will not close.
Alberta’s chief medical officer, Deena Hinshaw, has recommended schools in the province remain open.
“Any school closure, in my opinion, would need be in place for many months to be effective,” she said, noting Alberta has not yet had a case of community spread. Instead, Alberta will work with schools to make them as safe as possible, she said.
Although children have not been severely affected by COVID-19 in other parts of the world, they could play an important role in its spread.
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he was following the advice of the province’s chief medical officer of health as he issued a ministerial order on Thursday to close schools from March 14 to April 5, extending by two weeks the annual spring break for two million schoolchildren.
Mr. Lecce said students will continue their studies through the closings, although it is unclear how that will happen. A spokeswoman for Mr. Lecce said on Friday that the government would provide details shortly.
Several school boards, including Toronto, said childcare centres located in their schools would be closed. Further, the city of Toronto said on Friday that it would temporarily close childcare centres and libraries, and would not be running March Break camps. The tentative date for services to resume is April 5.
For students in Ontario, especially, the school shutdowns are in addition to days they have missed in the classroom as a result of labour unrest in the sector. The province’s main teacher unions have engaged in job action, from work-to-rule to one-day strikes, over the past few months as tensions with the government have risen.
However, education observers say the temporary closing does not mean the academic year will need to be extended.
Paul Bennett, an education consultant based in Halifax, said that making up for lost instructional time “pales in significance in the midst of a global pandemic.”
“Missing two weeks is not critical and this crisis may yet spawn some creative solutions, such as e-learning to bridge the gap. It will likely be hastily conceived, and patched together, but most will just be relieved that the health emergency has subsided,” he said.
Charles Pascal, a former deputy minister of education in Ontario and a professor with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said that catching up on schoolwork when student are back doesn’t mean cramming content in, but rather focusing on key learning. “If the right things are done, I don’t think the school year needs to be extended to more than the end of June,” he said.
Prof. Pascal said if schools remain closed beyond the extra two weeks, teachers could develop learning activities and schools could arrange staggered times for a small number of students to pick up materials.
“Necessity is the parent of innovation. It’s one of those all hands on deck moments,” he said.
With reports from Les Perreaux and Carrie Tait
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