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All schools in the Windsor area will be closed next week and students will learn remotely as rising COVID-19 infections prompted a shutdown order from the city’s local medical officer of health.

The temporary school closings in the Southwestern Ontario city come as educators have been pressuring the province for an extended winter break. Rising COVID-19 cases in schools have resulted in students and staff being sent home to self-isolate.

Windsor’s public-health unit is the first in the province to take action to close schools to in-class learning.

Wajid Ahmed, Medical Officer of Health for the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, said in a statement on Thursday that the temporary closing is a result of the “rapid rise” in COVID-19 cases and community transmission. The shutdown comes just before a two-week winter break, when all schools across the province will be closed. Students are expected to return on Jan. 4.

However, the school closings in Windsor came with a warning. “An extension of this order may be considered based on COVID-19 epidemiological data for Windsor and Essex County,” Dr. Ahmed said.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said last month that the government would not extend the winter break for its two million students, even as the province continues to set records for COVID-19 infections. The organization representing Ontario’s directors of education had requested the Ministry of Education extend the winter break by a week so that staff and students would not return to school buildings on Jan. 4.

Closing schools for a period has been the focus of recent discussions among educators and public-health officials. Several 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 doctors worry how this will affect classrooms.

Alberta has temporarily shut down in-person classes for students in junior high and high school. The province has also extended the winter break for in-person classes until Jan. 11 for all students, including those in older grades. Quebec, too, is moving primary and secondary students online for a couple of days before the winter break, and adding an extra week of virtual learning at the end of the holiday for secondary students.

Windsor is in Ontario’s “red zone,” the level before an area is place on lockdown. It includes more stringent measures on social gatherings and businesses. Toronto and Peel Region are in lockdown.

David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said Thursday that he spoke with Dr. Ahmed, who felt it was necessary to have students study remotely to limit the spread of the virus in the Windsor area, where cases are rising fast.

“Other health units have not seen that, even in the lockdown zones of Toronto and Peel,” Dr. Williams told reporters on Thursday, adding that cases in schools are coming from the surrounding community.

Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s associate medical officer of health, said the situation is being closely monitored, but did not indicate whether the local health unit would move in a similar direction as Windsor.

“We continue working with our school-board partners in Toronto to make sure to the greatest extent possible that our schools remain open for in-person learning as much as it is safely possible to do so,” Dr. Dubey said in an e-mail statement.

Scott Scantlebury, a spokesman for the Greater Essex County District School Board, said online learning will continue for all students, and schools will be open to staff.

“The health unit has been clear this action was not taken because schools are not safe. It is to reduce the spread of COVID-19 cases occurring in the community,” Mr. Scantlebury said.

Earlier this week, the local teachers’ unions and education workers unions in Toronto called on the provincial government and the public-health unit to move all schools to online learning for at least the first two weeks in January. The open letter said that keeping schools closed longer would “ensure schools do not contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the post-holiday period.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that Alberta has extended it's winter break for in-person classes.

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