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Thorncliffe Park Public School, seen here in East York, Toronto, on Nov. 25, 2020, is minutes away from a cluster of high-rise apartment buildings that serve as a landing pad for immigrant families.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

One of the country’s largest elementary schools will temporarily close its doors to students and staff after a COVID-19 testing blitz uncovered more than two dozen cases in the school.

The principal at Thorncliffe Park Public School told parents in a letter late on Thursday that the building will be closed until at least Dec. 9 as Toronto Public Health investigates the 26 cases at the school.

“To allow them time to finish their investigation and to perform additional voluntary COVID-19 testing, they have advised that, based on the current situation, all students and staff at the school be dismissed until at least Wednesday, December 9, 2020,” Jeff Crane wrote in the letter to families, adding that students will learn remotely.

The school, northeast of the city’s downtown, is minutes away from a cluster of high-rise apartment buildings that serves as a landing pad for immigrant families, mainly from South Asian countries.

Earlier in the day, Toronto District School Board spokesman Ryan Bird said that the school had temporarily closed 18 of its 42 classes after students and staff tested positive in a voluntary testing program. There were one or two positive cases in each of the 18 classrooms, as opposed to one large cluster in a class.

Still, nearly half the children – about 350 students – were self-isolating at home and learning remotely.

Further, three teachers had submitted a work refusal to the school’s principal on Thursday morning, saying the conditions in their classroom were “unsafe,” said Jennifer Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto union local. The Ministry of Labour was investigating the situation.

Ms. Brown said while she understood the value of keeping schools open for the academic and social well-being of children, the government had failed. “Make the schools safe by funding them appropriately to provide the ventilation that is required, to provide windows that open … provide the funding that we can have smaller class sizes, so that outbreaks are minimized,” she said.

Thorncliffe Park school is part of a provincial program that is testing students and staff in areas experiencing high rates of COVID-19 infections. Education Minister Stephen Lecce told reporters on Thursday that the aim of the program is to reduce transmission of the virus. He did not directly answer questions on whether he wants to see more asymptomatic testing in schools. Instead, Mr. Lecce said he relied on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health.

Students and staff at the school were tested last Thursday and Friday, and on Monday. The school’s enrolment is around 1,400, but this year only about 750 opted for in-person learning. The remaining students chose virtual school.

The neighbourhood around the school has had a large number of COVID-19 cases since the fall. It is unclear whether infections were transmitted in the school or in the community.

Janine McCready, an infectious-diseases physician at Michael Garron Hospital, one of the organizations conducting the testing blitz, said that she and her colleagues have reached out to offer retesting to students in eight classes who were instructed to self-isolate, and are arranging tests at a pop-up site in the area.

“Given the potential exposure to a COVID-19 contact in the school, a retest will help understand the extent of exposures and spread within any given classroom,” Dr. McCready said in an e-mail.

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