With COVID cases rising across the province, including the north, the province has extended the lockdown in northern Ontario for another two weeks.

The north's lockdown was expected to end this weekend, two weeks after it was imposed. It has been extended to Jan. 23.

The province also announced Thursday online learning will continue until Jan. 25 in southern Ontario, but elementary students and secondary students in the seven northern Ontario public health unit regions will return to class Jan. 11.

"The measures are being taken to help ensure all Ontarians stay at home as much as possible to minimize transmission of the virus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, while at the same time being responsive to the fact that northern Ontario students are not able to learn at home as effectively due to limited access to reliable Internet service," the province said in a news release.

Trends show increasing transmission in many northern Ontario public health regions, with only one region showing a sustained low level of transmission, the province said.

"In addition, with the increased risk of transmission due to the confirmed presence of the COVID-19 UK variant in the province, the seven public health unit regions in northern Ontario will remain in the shutdown until at least Jan. 23," the release said.

"The chief medical officer of health and other health experts is extending certain measures to keep students, education staff, and residents of northern Ontario safe," the province said.

Northern Ontario currently has nine COVID-19 patients requiring acute care, four patients in ICU, with two on a ventilator. Acute hospital occupancy (total patients) in Algoma Public Health and Public Health Sudbury & Districts are at more than 90 per cent.

"With the public health trends where they are across the province, our priority remains keeping students, teachers, school staff, and all Ontarians safe," Premier Doug Ford said in the release.

"That's why we're extending the remote learning period for students in southern Ontario and the shutdown period for northern Ontario, while continuing to provide financial relief for parents through the Support for Learners program as well as electricity rate relief for all time-of-use customers. We have to get the numbers down and today's measures will help us continue to stop the spread of this deadly virus."

Indicators getting worse

In the nearly two weeks since Ontario was moved into a province-wide shutdown, trends in key public health indicators have continued to worsen in both northern and southern Ontario, including concerning trends in health system capacity, most notably in hospitals.

The impacts of these time-limited measures throughout the province will be evaluated after 14 days to determine if it is safe to lift any restrictions or if they need to be extended.

"In the last two weeks, we have seen concerning trends at home and abroad, as well as increased community transmission during the holidays, indicating that it is not yet the time to begin easing public health and workplace safety measures," said Christine Elliott, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health.

"While extending the shutdown in northern Ontario is not the news many wanted to hear, we must work together to stop the spread of COVID-19, protect hospital capacity, and save lives."

Targeted testing done among students and staff in December 2020 confirmed that schools are not a significant source of transmission. However, with students having been at home for several weeks and with reports of concerning behaviour over the holidays, the positivity rate among school-aged children has increased sharply.

Most troubling, the province said the positivity rate for kids aged 12-13 years old increased from 5.44 per cent in late November, early December to nearly 20 per cent in early January.

"Returning students to school now with community transmission and positivity rates so high risks losing the hard-fought progress made in keeping schools and students safe," the release said. "The Ministry of Education will continue to act on the best advice of medical and health experts to ensure that students in northern Ontario are able to return to school safely and, when safe to do so, students in southern Ontario, as well."

Follow all safety measures

"As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it is crucial that all Ontarians continue to follow all public health and workplace safety measures," said Dr. David Williams, chief medical officer of health. "To help stop the spread of COVID-19 and safeguard health system capacity, Ontarians are strongly urged to stay at home, limit trips outside of their households for essential reasons only and must not gather with individuals outside of the people they live with."

To support families during this extended school closure, child care centres, and home-based child care services will remain open. Ontario is also expanding eligibility for the Ministry of Education's targeted emergency child care program for a broader number of frontline health and safety workers.

In order to continue to support remote learning, the ministry has recommended that a portion of the second half of federal funding, an additional $80 million investment, will be provided for additional technological devices, such as laptops and tablets, to support school boards in procuring about 160,000 additional devices province-wide.

Financial support is also available for families during this temporary remote learning period through the Support for Learners program. Starting on Jan. 11, an expanded Support for Learners program is providing $200 for each child or youth up to Grade 12 and $250 for each child or youth up to age 21 with special needs. Applications will be open until Feb. 8.

For those requiring additional support during this challenging period, Ontario is providing an additional $10 million in support of student mental health, including funding for Kids Help Phone to support children and youth across the province. School Mental Health Ontario will be providing mental health resources and strategies to support students during this period.