Ontario is telling its school boards to prepare for the possibility of fully remote learning in the new year, prompting calls for clarity on whether the government plans to shut down in-class learning in January.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce told boards in a memo late Wednesday that staff and students should be encouraged to bring essential learning materials home over the holidays.
Lecce said that the precaution will help the education system be ready for “all scenarios.”
“The public health environment in Ontario continues to evolve rapidly. The government is continuing to monitor the COVID-19 situation, including recent trends in hospitalizations and intensive care unit patients,” Lecce said.
“We encourage boards to continue to ensure that students and families are provided the resources required to successfully participate in remote learning.”
Ontario reported 170 new COVID-19 cases related to schools on Thursday, including at least 143 among students.
Those bring the number of schools with a reported case to 955 – nearly 20 per cent – out of Ontario’s 4,828 publicly funded schools.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said Thursday that the government’s goal has always been to keep schools open, but the province is closely watching increasing rates of COVID-19 in some communities.
“(It’s) really important for students to learn, for their physical and their mental health,” she said. “However, we are seeing the numbers of cases rise tremendously. And so we’re looking at all options.”
The head of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said the government needs to be clear on what it planned to do.
“I’m not certain why the Minister can’t make this decision now?” Sam Hammond said on Twitter. “Does he think the numbers are going to drop drastically in two weeks?”
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca demanded the government clearly communicate what parents can expect after the holiday break.
“Doug Ford should step up and extend the holiday break for one additional week,” he said in a statement. “This would give the Ministry of Education the chance to assess the situation and relieve the stress and fatigue that has affected school kids, educators, administrators and support staff.”
NDP education critic Marit Stiles urged the government to re-work its plan for schools, including a cap on class sizes at 15, improved ventilation and broad-based asymptomatic testing.
“Premier Ford has sat back and waited for a vaccine, and frankly, that is not a plan at all,” she said. “It is costing our families dearly and it has to change.”
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner urged the government to make the call now for an extended winter break so people can plan.
“Provide supports for parents who need to take time off or find child care options during that time,” he said.
“Use the extended break to improve ventilation in schools and to reduce class sizes to ensure safe physical distancing when students return to school.”
The Toronto District School Board said Wednesday night that classes, schools or the entire system may move online as COVID-19 cases rise in the city.
The board’s interim director of education told families in an email to prepare for remote learning, with a working device at home and correct contact information provided to their school.
Kathy Witherow also asked parents to ensure students bring all of their belongings home before the holiday break this month.
“As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in Toronto, so too does the possibility of individual classes, schools or the system moving to remote learning for a period of time,” she said. “As a result, we want to be as prepared as possible.”