The Ontario government is looking at the possibility of cancelling March Break for tens of thousands of students in Ottawa and across Ontario.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce tells CTV Morning Live that he expects to receive advice from chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams next week on whether to proceed with the week off for students and teachers or keep them in school in a bid to limit the spread of COVID-19.
"My decision point is going to be made exclusively on medical advice. If they believe that cancelling the break to disincentive travel and is in the best interest of public health, I'm going to follow that advice full stop," said Lecce Thursday morning.
Last week, Eastern Ontario medical officer of health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis suggested March Break should be cancelled for all students to keep COVID-19 case counts down in the community.
"I think if kids stay in school it's not going to be a problem," said Roumeliotis. "Unless kids stay home and parents keep them home during spring break and don't mix with others then that's not going to be a problem but what we saw during Christmas break was really the opposite. The numbers really went up four fold in terms of positivity for the age group between 11 and 13 for example."
Lecce says the government will follow the advice on March Break from Ontario's top doctor.
"We'll get the final opinion from the chief medical officer of health, I suspect in the coming days. We're going to hope to get that out to parents next week, give you sufficient time," said Lecce.
"Obviously, quite frankly and transparently, parents and families should not be travelling; we know about the risks of the new variant, we want to keep people home – we think that's important to send the message."
Elementary and secondary students in Ottawa returned to class for in-person learning on Monday, following four weeks of virtual learning after the Christmas break. Students in eastern Ontario returned to class on Tuesday and Wednesday.
March Break for school boards in Ottawa and eastern Ontario is scheduled for March 15-19.
Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation President Harvey Bischof tells CTV News Ottawa that educators, students and parents need a break.
"Bearing in mind the pressures under which everybody in education have been under, this does seem like a bad idea," said Bischof on Thursday. "I can only hope that the minister doesn't make another politically motivated decision around this rather than taking into account the medical advice."
The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) is calling on the Ontario government to give students and staff the week off.
"ETFO strongly opposes any change to the 2021 March Break. We are living in unprecedented times that continue to create high levels of stress, fear and anxiety for everyone," said ETFO President Sam Hammond in a statement to CTV News Ottawa.
"We have heard repeatedly that students, families and educators need a break right now. Their mental health and well-being must be the first consideration. If there are concerns related to travel, mobility and interactions during the break, the government and public health have the ability to address these concerns. They should plan accordingly."
Lecce says the Ontario government wants to keep families, children and schools safe during the pandemic.
"I assure you we're not going to put at risk families in Ontario, we're not going to permit any action that could compound the transmission of COVID or these new variants that create risks for our families," said Lecce.
"We're going to follow the advice, and we just really want to get kids back to school – that's important."
With files from CTV News Ottawa's Stephanie Ha and Jeremie Charron.