All publicly funded schools in Ontario will be closed for two weeks following March break due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
The Ontario government made the announcement in a statement on Thursday, saying that the decision was made based on advice from Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.
“This means that Ontario schools have been ordered to remain closed from March 14 through to April 5, 2020,” the statement reads.
“We recognize the significant impact this decision will have on families, students, schools, as well as the broader community, but this precaution is necessary to keep people safe.”
The decision comes as two people under the age of 18 were diagnosed with the virus over the last 24 hours. One of the patients is “quite young,” health officials added.
Speaking to reporters that afternoon, Dr. David Williams said that there isn’t much data on how COVID-19 can impact children, but the latest cases have proven that children can develop the illness.
"While I don't believe there's much illness, it does give the potential of bringing back infection and introducing it into various settings, including schools and daycares."
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the decision was made immediately following a recommendation by Williams given the latest developments “both internationally and at home.”
“I want every parent and family to know with confidence when their child returns to school they will be in a safe and healthy learning environment based on the scientific advice of Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health,” Lecce said.
“Following this two week period, we will evaluate the situation and decide if any action is required.”
Lecce said the government will be providing additional resources for sanitation and personal hygiene products in schools and will be announcing further action “in the coming days.”
"There is a plan that is being finalized that will ensure learning continues in this province for students in Ontario."
The announcement does not include Ontario daycares. The minister's office confirmed that each facility, school board or local public health unit will decide whether daycares should remain open.
While every political party appears to support the decision to shut down publicly-funded schools, many said they have questions about the government’s future strategy as more people are diagnosed with COVID-19.
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Ontario New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath said she found it “astounding and shocking” that there didn’t appear to be a concrete plan in place prior to the outbreak.
“I am sure this wasn’t an easy decision and I support it,” she said while speaking to reporters after Lecce. “However, two million kids will be out of school and hundreds of thousands of parents will be home from work. Parents need to be assured they can stay home with their kids and will not lose a paycheck if they do that and cannot be fired for doing that.”
“These plans should have been in place well before this day came. We need to see a plan and we need it to be clearly and effectively communicated to the public.”
Meanwhile, Ontario's Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca said on Twitter that he supported the government’s decision, but hopes that the Progressive Conservatives continue to provide support for families who depend on school breakfast and lunch programs.
“Kids should not fall through the cracks,” he said.
School boards across Ontario say they have just learned of the decision and will be sharing more information as it becomes available.
Teachers’ job action suspended
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has said that it is suspending planned rotating strikes that were scheduled to begin on March 23.
“Following the March break, ETFO members will continue to engage in work-to-rule strike action but will not engage in full withdrawal of service rotating strikes that were scheduled to begin on Monday March 23,” said ETFO President Sam Hammond.
In a statement, the union said that they have been actively monitoring the spread of COVID-19 and will make other modifications to its work-to-rule action at a later date.
Prior to the government’s announcement, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation said that he “will welcome any opportunity” to work with the ministry to ensure students and educators are safe amid the virus outbreak.