TORONTO -- The Ontario government has said it will postpone March Break for students and teachers for a month.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce made the announcement at Queen’s Park on Thursday afternoon alongside Minister of Health Christine Elliott and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams.

The week-long break, which was originally scheduled for March 15-19, will now take place on the week of April 12th.

"Postponing March Break, not cancelling it, is an important way that schools can help to limit community transmission," Lecce said.

“I recognize that this is one more change in a year that has been challenging for so many students and our education staff who continue to work so hard, but is one made on the best advice of public health officials to keep them safe, and to keep our schools open in this province.”

Lecce added that the decision was based on the advice of medical experts, with the understanding that “congregation is a key driver of the spread of COVID-19.”

“This postponement also limits any further disruption to students as they could return to in-person learning during a time that has been challenging.”

Ontario schools were switched to remote-only learning following the winter holiday break as case counts surged but the provincial government has gradually been allowing students to return to classrooms in recent weeks as case counts have declined.

Schools in an additional 13 public health units reopened on Monday, including Durham and Halton regions.

Meanwhile, schools in Toronto, York and Peel are set to reopen on Feb. 16.

Government says spread of COVID-19 variants a factor

Ontario’s Minister of Education said the decision to defer March Break was “all the more important” as the province sees an emergence of new COVID-19 variants of concern.

On Thursday, the province confirmed that officials identified 236 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant first found in the U.K. and three cases of the B.1.351 variant first found in South America.

Only 10 per cent of the B.1.1.7. cases were linked to travel. A little more than 80 per cent were said to be associated with an outbreak or a close contact of a confirmed case.

The new variants are said to be much more transmissible, and health experts have projected that the B.1.1.7 variant in particular could be the dominant strain of COVID-19 by March.

“The decision to postpone March Break has not been an easy one, but necessary to keep Ontario families safe from this variant,” Lecce told reporters on Thursday.

"We are governed by advice by the medical community to limit the potential for transmission and really limit or try to prevent a scenario we saw over the holidays where there was just a massive spike of transmission and positivity of our kids.”

Williams added his recommendation that when kids and teachers do go on March Break in April, they should still remain within their region and avoid travelling.

“We are not encouraging travel during the, if it was the March Break, we wouldn't encourage that. We don't want a lot of interprovincial travel either, as well as international, definitely at this time with the very much rising rapid issue of variants of concern.”

Teachers’ unions ‘strongly oppose’ deferral of March Break

Ontario’s four teachers’ unions released a statement shortly after Lecce’s announcement saying they “strongly oppose the government’s plan to postpone March Break.”

The comments were made jointly by the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO).

“These are unprecedented times, and this is a much-needed break for students, teachers, education workers, and families who have been under tremendous pressure throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The government’s decision to postpone March Break does not take into consideration the mental health and well-being of those involved.”

The statement goes on to say that union representatives and stakeholders in the sector provided “unanimous opposition” to the delay.

“The postponement of March Break shows, yet again, the inadequacies of the Progressive Conservative government’s planning. If there are concerns related to travel and gatherings during March Break, these should be addressed by the government through other means. Why did Premier Doug Ford reopen the economy when it is clear risks remain? Is he concerned that his stay-at-home orders are ineffective?”

Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), also said in a statement education workers wanted to keep March Break intact.

“We made it clear to the Ford government that CUPE education workers wanted to keep March break intact. Staff and students have had a difficult school year and everyone’s mental health would have benefited from a long-scheduled break that was meant to help them recharge,” Walton said.

“Make no mistake: the Minister can delay March break and claim he’s doing it in the interest of public health. But if he’s not carrying out the proposals above during the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s putting students, workers and families at risk.”