Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce says the province will expand eligibility for its emergency childcare program to include more front-line workers as schools remain closed for in-person learning.

The minister made the announcement on Saturday morning, saying that the expansion aims to help parents of school-aged children who cannot support their children’s at home learning or care because they are performing front-line work.

“More people, more emergency and front-line workers will need support in this province,” Lecce told reporters. “That's why today we're announcing an extension of the emergency and free childcare we're providing to our front-line workers.”

The announcement comes after the province reported on Thursday that students in southern Ontario would not return to the classroom on Monday for in-person learning as planned due to a surge in COVID-19 cases across the province.

The province reported that elementary schools in the southern part of the province (south of Sudbury) would remain closed until Jan. 25, which is two weeks later than the original reopening date.

Secondary students are still slated to return to class for in-person learning on Jan. 25 as first announced and in-person learning will still resume in northern Ontario for elementary students on Jan. 11.

Lecce said the province received new data this past week that indicated COVID-19 positivity rates amongst children have been increasing at alarming rates.

He said the data shows there has been a massive spike, roughly 117 per cent, in case numbers among young people in Ontario between Dec. 27 and Jan. 3.

“The trend is problematic, and we have to take this seriously,” Lecce said. “I think we are rather shocked at how significant that increase was over a short period of time.

“So for the next two weeks students will be home. Our aim is over the period of time to build up our plan that can help get kids back.”

Lecce said the province is working to expand asymptomatic testing, improve air ventilation, and hire more staff before school starts.

The minister said that the childcare program had been offered to some groups of front-line workers for the first week of January amid school closures, but will now also be available to other workers as well, including postal workers, RCMP, homeless shelter staff and others.

“Given the extension, we think it is reasonable to extend that free service for another two weeks and to expand it to include more front-line workers within our economy and within our society,” Lecce said.

The minister said that 2,200 families have enrolled in the province’s free childcare program so far, which has a capacity of “roughly 20,000.”

Ontario’s official opposition sent out a news release Saturday following Lecce’s announcement, saying the government made no real commitment to ensure workers are supported and schools can safely reopen.

The NDP’s Education Critic Marit Stiles and Childcare Critic Doly Begum said in the statement that they are calling for smaller classrooms, broader asymptomatic testing, urgent ventilation improvements, and paid sick and family-care leave for all parents.

“The government has been unwilling to invest in these measures for nearly a year now. They knew what needed to be done to keep our classrooms open and safe and they have failed,” Stiles said.

"We've been asking for this since September. All the experts have been asking for this. So it's very frustrating today to not hear what the government has planned."

Here’s a full list of workers now eligible for Ontario's emergency childcare program:

  • Front-line staff in Children’s Aid Societies and residential services.
  • Individuals working in developmental services, violence against women services, and antihuman trafficking.
  • Individuals working in victims’ services.
  • Individuals engaged in interpreting or intervener services for persons who are deaf or deafblind.
  • Individuals working in a homeless shelter or providing services to people who are homeless.
  • Food safety inspectors and individuals working in the processing, manufacturing or distribution of food and beverages.
  • Provincial court services personnel, including Indigenous court workers.
  • OPS staff employed in radiation protection services.
  • RCMP and Canada Border Services.
  • Canada Post workers.
  • Pharma and medical device manufacturing and distribution workers.
  • Power workers.
  • Non-municipal water and wastewater workers.
  • Education staff who are required to attend schools to provide in-person instruction and support to students with special education needs who cannot be accommodated through remote learning.
  • Employees of a hotel or motel that is acting as an isolation centre, health care centre, vaccine clinic or housing essential workers.