The Toronto District School Board has warned its school staff to be ready to switch to remote learning as concern grows about the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the province.
An e-mail sent to principals and vice-principals on Monday morning said that with the long weekend and an April week-long break on the horizon, staff should prepare for the possibility that classes, schools or the entire education system could move to online learning “for a period of time.”
“We have received no indication that schools will close, however, we do want to make sure we are prepared to implement any decision smoothly and efficiently to be able to continue to support our students,” said the e-mail from associate directors Andrew Gold and Curtis Ennis, a copy of which was provided to The Globe and Mail.
Ontario reported more than 2,094 new cases on Monday – the fifth day that daily case counts have been above 2,000. Almost a quarter of schools in the province have at least one case, a number that has steadily risen over the past few days. When a pupil has a positive diagnosis, they, the entire class, and their siblings are sent home to isolate for two weeks and classes are conducted remotely. Schools in Thunder Bay and Sudbury closed to in-person learning earlier this month and students are learning remotely.
At the TDSB, two schools were temporarily closed Sunday evening on the advice of Toronto Public Health, and students were moved to online learning.
Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the school board, said the e-mail sent by the associate directors to staff was “reiterating what we’ve said since the beginning of the school year – that we need to be prepared if individual classes or schools need to close as a result of COVID.”
Still, there is increasing worry among families and educators that schools will once again move to remote learning as they did after the winter break.
To curb the spread of COVID-19, the province moved the traditional March break to the week of April 12 to delay travel and family gatherings.
At a news conference on Monday, Premier Doug Ford said he would have a better picture by the end of the week as to whether the break would need to be postponed again.
“We see the numbers going up by a rapid speed right now. By the end of the week, we’ll have a clear direction that will still give people at least a week to 10 days’ notice,” Mr. Ford told reporters.
However, Education Minister Stephen Lecce suggested that the province would keep the April break, and has not been advised by the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, to alter those plans.
At a separate news conference on Monday, Mr. Lecce said there would be increased health and safety measures when students returned to school after the break. Mr. Lecce did not indicate what those additional measures could be, indicating that details would be provided later in the week.
“These rising numbers obviously pose a challenge to the province and so we’ll seek [the Chief Medical Officer of Health’s] perspective and make sure it gets communicated, if anything changes,” Mr. Lecce said, adding that so far the April break is proceeding as planned.
The priority for the government, he said, is to keep schools open for when children return from the Easter long weekend and then from their April week off.
“We recognize closures are very difficult for children and we seek to avoid them,” Mr. Lecce said.
Marit Stiles, the NDP education critic, said parents, students and educators are “exhausted” and are in need of a break.
“It’s clear we should have given folks a break in March. Now Ford has called into question whether people will get a break at all,” she said, adding that schools would be safer with smaller class sizes and a more comprehensive in-school testing program.
Dr. Williams told reporters on Monday that he was still watching the “volatility” in the province’s COVID-19 numbers before making any recommendations about the April break or closing schools. He said a committee of public-health and education officials are going to review the data on schools.
“Things can change pretty quickly on the upswing, and we have seen some places come back down again as we put in some limitations,” Dr. Williams said.
With files from Jeff Gray.
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