Ontario’s delayed school break on shaky ground amid surging COVID-19 cases

Ford at Niagara Falls Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks to reporters at Niagara Falls on March 29, 2021. Screenshot of video

Ontario’s students and teachers have been holding out for their delayed March break since it was deferred six weeks ago amid what was then considered a dangerously high rate of COVID-19 spread. Those numbers are much higher now and that break is in question.

“I don’t want to predict two weeks out, but we’ll be out here every single day communicating with the people. I just can’t give you a direct answer right now, two weeks down the road,” said Premier Doug Ford, standing in front of Niagara Falls after announcing support for the tourism industry on Monday when asked whether another postponement was possible.

Classrooms in Toronto, Peel and York were still closed for an extended winter break and online-only stint when the March break was deferred to limit travel and allow more time for public health measures to help reduce spread and for more people to get vaccinated.

At the time of the delay, cases were averaging around 1,200 a day. That turned out to be the tail end of the second wave’s decline. Growth in daily cases spurred by more contagious and more dangerous variants has been steady through March and now stands at a seven-day average of over 2,000, with the highest positivity rate in months. Around 10 per cent of recent cases are linked to schools, and almost one per cent of schools are closed.

“We see the numbers going up at a rapid speed right now,” Ford said. “By the end of the week, we’ll have a clearer direction that will still give people a week to 10 days’ notice.”

“The minister will be keeping a sharp eye on it, as well as myself and the chief medical officer,” he said.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce, meanwhile, said that “as of today, we’re proceeding, and we’re just going to build out a plan” based on the advice of chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams. “If that advice changes, I’ll communicate that publicly,” he said.

Lecce sought to focus on the provincial government’s plans to unveil later this week a targeted PSA campaign and extra rules for the next back-to-school return.

The Progressive Conservatives have been late to make decisions about schools previously in the pandemic, including extending the winter break after it had already started, a month after hinting they would and then saying they wouldn’t.

They have slotted teachers and education staff into the end of the third phase of the province’s vaccine rollout plan, meaning they can expect to start receiving vaccinations just before schools break for two months over summer.

Williams said they are still “trying to see if we can bend the curve at all” in overall numbers, “but right now, our evidence shows us we’re doing a good job of keeping it at bay” in schools in an increasingly challenging environment, noting that less than one per cent of students have tested positive in whole-school tests after an outbreak.

By Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter