Canada’s two largest provinces are grappling with whether to extend winter school vacations as Quebec and Ontario continue to set records for COVID-19 infections.
In Quebec, schools have accounted for about 20% of new COVID-19 cases in each of the past two weeks. The number of cases in Ontario, meanwhile, has been steadily high, with the province registering 1,575 new infections on Thursday, increasing exposure for students and staff.
Provincial governments have been reluctant to close schools, even temporarily, underlining the social and emotional well-being of children. However, as the number of pandemic cases in communities increases, educators and public health officials are concerned about how it will affect classrooms.
In Ontario, school board leaders are calling on the province to extend winter vacations for students and staff.
Quebec Premier François Legault told reporters on Thursday that an extended shutdown around the winter break was being considered, but he stressed his reluctance to take such a drastic step. He said more than 1,100 classrooms are currently closed, but, more importantly, 324 closures have taken place in the past two days.
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“The last places we want to close are schools,” he said.
Quebec has had some of the most restrictive pandemic measures in the country since the beginning of October, including limiting gatherings and closing indoors and outdoor dining. The restrictions slowed the spread of the virus but did not drive infections to levels seen in summer.
Discussions about school closures in Quebec could portend what other parts of the country may soon have to face due to the rise of COVID-19 in Ontario and Western Canada.
Schools across the country abruptly closed their doors to classroom instruction in the spring as the first wave of the pandemic struck, leaving many families struggling with online learning. When schools opened this fall, provinces implemented different levels of health and safety measures, and Ontario, in particular, offered families the option of virtual learning.
Tony Pontes, chief executive of the Ontario Council of Directors of Education, said Thursday his organization has spoken to the province’s education ministry to extend the winter break so staff and students do not return to buildings schools on January 4.
“This is only a discussion at the moment, but the directors expressed their concern and recommended that the ministry consider either a few days or indeed the whole week,” Mr Pontes said in an interview, adding that school board leaders suggest that students would learn virtually during this time.
He said principals are worried about students and staff who could reunite with their families during the December break and return to school a few days later. With a little time in between the holidays and the reopening of schools, “I hope that if someone is symptomatic they will find out before they go back to school,” said Pontes.
He said the department acknowledged the concern and was considering the application.
Lawrence Loh, the regional medical officer of health for Peel, west of Toronto, said the cases in schools were a reflection of community transmission rather than one of its drivers. Peel infection rates have increased rapidly.
“If you throw enough cases into the school system, and the number of our cases continues to increase, then it will take some sort of calculation,” Dr Loh told reporters Thursday. “We really need to limit our interactions, get that under control, because at the end of the day schools are one of the last things we want to shut down knowing that many students benefit… from being in that context.”
Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said the government had not considered any changes to the school year schedule. “Our goal remains to do whatever we can to keep students and educators safe, while keeping schools open and students learning in person,” she said.
Yet a memo from Deputy Education Minister Nancy Naylor to school board principals in October urged them to be prepared to switch to distance learning if cohorts of students or entire schools isolated themselves.
“To prepare for a possible closure, school boards should have plans in place so that they can move quickly to distance learning,” Ms. Naylor wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe. and Mail.
She added: “Continuity of learning is essential to ensure stability and consistency in the lives of our students.”
Manny Figueiredo, director of education for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, said his council had sent out a survey to families asking if they had internet devices and services if classrooms or schools moved to distance learning.
“We are asking families to rate their readiness for students to learn at home if a school closes due to an epidemic or if the Department of Education directs us to a full distance learning scenario.” , said Figueiredo.
With a report from Chen Wang
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