TORONTO -- Fifteen of Ontario’s public schools are now closed due to COVID-19 spread – the highest number of school closures seen in the province to date this year, with the number of closures now exceeding what occurred at this point in the 2020 school year.

The Ministry of Education says 170 new cases of COVID-19 were detected in the past 24 hours, including 154 in students, 13 in staff and three in people whose association to school was not disclosed.

Five additional schools closed in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of schools closed to 15.

On this date last year, only four of the province’s 4,844 publicly funded schools were closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

The school system did not see double-digit school closure numbers in the 2020 school year until Dec. 7 and did not exceed 15 closures until Dec. 14.

Nearly 14 per cent of all Ontario schools are now dealing with at least one active case of COVID-19.

There are now 1,397 active cases in public schools, up more than 22 per cent from one week ago.

The increase in Ontario’s active caseload over the same time period was only 14 per cent, suggesting that schools are increasingly being tied to higher case counts compared to the broader community.

The first few dozen children under the age of 12 received pediatric doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from Tuesday to Wednesday, with more than 90,000 appointments for children booked across Ontario over the next few weeks.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the recent increases in COVID-19 transmission tied to schools is manageable, saying “eight in nine” elementary schools in the province do not have an active case of COVID-19.

“We’re taking nothing for granted, we’ve stepped up the testing by design, we know that winter months can mean higher cases, and we are being very cautious on the way forward,” he said, referring to recent decisions to make in-school assemblies virtual and adjusting high school lunch timing as examples of his prudence.

Schools across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area reported 672 active cases of COVID-19 among students and staff on Wednesday, 20 more than Tuesday and 45 more than one week ago.

At least 128 class cohorts in the GTHA are at home self isolating and three schools – Grenoble Public School in Toronto’s Flemingdon Park area, Micheline-Saint-Cyr Elementary School in Etobicoke, and Nativity of Our Lord Catholic School in Etobicoke – are closed.