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At-home learning for Ontario elementary students extended to Jan. 25

Posted: January 9, 2021

(January 8, 2021)

By: John Schofield,  The Lawyer’s Daily

Ontario is extending remote learning for elementary school students in Southern Ontario until Jan. 25 and extending the public health lockdown in Northern Ontario to align with the lockdown in the province’s south.

However, elementary and secondary school students in Northern Ontario’s seven public health unit regions will return to in-person classes on Jan. 11 because more limited access to reliable Internet service in Northern Ontario makes online learning more difficult, according to a Jan. 7 government news release.

Provincewide, the Grey-Lockdown public health restrictions detailed in the government’s colour-coded COVID-19 response framework will now continue until at least Jan. 23.

Remote learning for both elementary and high school students started Jan. 4, following the Christmas break, but elementary students across Ontario were originally scheduled to return to in-person classes Jan. 11.

Record numbers of new COVID-19 cases and deaths derailed the plan, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, and chief coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer, said at an afternoon news conference Jan. 7.

“There was a plan and, unfortunately, it didn’t go as anticipated,” said Huyer. “Clearly the numbers keep going up, despite the provincial lockdown that’s been put in place.”

On Jan. 7, Ontario reached an all-time high of 3,519 new cases and 89 deaths, with 891 new cases in Toronto, 568 in Peel Region and 457 in York Region.

Williams noted that the hot zones of Toronto, Peel Region and York Region now account for just over 50 per cent of the new cases, down from 80 per cent only weeks ago — indicating that the extent of the spread is accelerating in the province. He expressed concern that the number of new daily cases could surpass 4,000, especially if the more infectious U.K. variant of COVID-19 spreads in the province. He said that six cases have been found so far.

“These things can flare up very fast,” he told the news conference, “and they don’t go away very quickly.”

Although the provincial government maintains that schools are not a significant source of transmission, “concerning behaviour” over the holiday period has helped fuel an alarming increase in positive COVID-19 tests among school age children, said the news release. The positivity rate for children aged 12-13 years old increased from 5.44 per cent in late November and early December to nearly 20 per cent in early January, it noted.

“The best medical and scientific experts have been clear: while schools have been safe places for kids, the sharp rise in community transmission puts that progress and Ontario families at risk,” Minister of Education Stephen Lecce said in the news release. “During this time, students will remain engaged in live teacher-led online learning with access to enhanced mental health and technology supports.”

Child care centres and home-based child care services will remain open, according to the news release, and Ontario is expanding eligibility for the Ministry of Education’s emergency child care program for front-line health and safety workers. Under its expanded Support for Learners program, starting Jan. 11, each child or youth up to Grade 12 will be eligible for a grant for education-related expenses of $200, while children and youth with special needs up to age 21 will be eligible for a grant of $250. Applications are being accepted until Feb. 8, 2021.

In a Jan. 7 news release, NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the government of Premier Doug Ford needs to invest more in measures to make schools safer, including capping class sizes at 15 and introducing a broad, in-school asymptomatic testing program. She also urged the government to speed up its “lethargic” COVID-19 vaccination program so teachers and education workers can get their shots sooner and to provide more financial support to parents who have to miss work.

“Doug Ford had a chance to make schools safe to reopen in the coming days,” she said in the news release, “but he chose not to invest in our children, or the safety of teachers and education workers.”

On the deadliest day of the pandemic, with some local hospitals already overwhelmed, the Ontario Health Coalition, which advocates for public health-care improvements, also issued a news release urging the government to take stronger public health measures.

“There can be no question remaining that stronger measures are needed to control the devastation the virus is wreaking,” it said. “At the same time, stronger supports for people who are the most impacted need to be an integral part of the strategy.”

Before the government’s announcement to extend at-home learning for students, some epidemiologists, such as the University of Guelph’s Amy Greer, publicly called for a delay in the return to in-person classes for elementary students. But in an open letter published Jan. 6 in the National Post, eight doctors expressed support for the government’s original Jan. 11 start date for in-person classes at elementary schools and Jan. 25 for high schools.

“Extending the school closures beyond the anticipated end dates,” the letter read, “will lead to unnecessary, and likely irreversible, short-term and long-term damage to our children.”

Most of the signatories are associated with McMaster University’s faculty of medicine and included Dr. Douglas Mack, an assistant clinical professor in its department of pediatrics and Dr. Sarah Khan, an assistant professor at the Hamilton, Ont., university.

The Ontario government also announced Jan. 7 that the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators will be allowed to play in their home arenas for the upcoming National Hockey League season, which starts Jan. 13.

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