Toronto schools shutting down for in-person learning as COVID-19 cases soar

Toronto’s top doctor says she made the decision to shut down schools in the city after reviewing three  weeks’ worth of data showing that the rising number of COVID-19 infections in the community is being reflected in school settings as well.

“We were just finding that with all the community activity that's happening, lots of COVID-19 cases, this is reflecting itself in our schools,” Dr. Eileen de Villa told CP24 Tuesday night. “And what we're seeing now is really fast spread related to variants of concern.”

She said the variants are more highly transmissible and therefore more dangerous.

“That means they spread faster, and therefore the risk was greater and so we really had no choice but to take this kind of action,” de Villa said.

All Toronto schools will be closing tomorrow for two weeks after de Villa used her special Section 22 power to issue the order. It comes amid a month-long provincewide shutdown to combat rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

As of Wednesday, students in all Toronto schools will have to pivot to remote learning for the rest of the week. Toronto Public Health says in-person learning is set to resume in Toronto on April 19, after next week’s spring break. However the order could be extended if warranted by the data.

“So we received word from Toronto Public Health which has invoked Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act, to order all Toronto schools to close, and this is to help essentially control the spread or curb the spread of COVID 19,” Toronto District School Board (TDSB) spokesperson Ryan Bird told CP24 on Tuesday.

School-aged children will not be allowed to attend daycares located inside TDSB schools during the closure, but pre-school-aged children will be allowed to attend.

“Given the evidence, Toronto Public Health (TPH) appreciates the value of in-person learning, and firmly believes that schools should be the first places in our community to open, and the last to close,” TPH said in a news release.

“Unfortunately, current circumstances require that difficult decisions must be taken locally to protect all those in our school communities, including students, teachers and staff.”

Bird acknowledged that there are some outbreaks at Toronto schools, including 22 that were closed on Monday, and that closing all schools is the best move right now.

“There are definitely schools that do have a number of cases, there have been some outbreaks declared, yet you have other schools that have really not been impacted at all. So I think it's largely about the community spread right now and that potential impact on our schools,” he said.

The move comes after Peel Region’s top doctor announced yesterday that schools in his region would be closing today for two weeks. The neighbouring Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph health unit made a similar call for its schools Monday evening.

Bird conceded that the TDSB is giving short notice about the closure but said it shouldn’t be too surprising to students and parents.

“I think everyone can agree, it's not a lot of warning. But I think everyone did know this conversation seemed to be out there for the past week or so. So, now at least we have this confirmation and we can make that switch to remote learning and support everyone as best we can.”

De Villa said that recognizing the importance of in-person learning, TPH had been trying to “stay the course” as much as possible, but the situation eventually became “untenable.”

“We were getting just way too many cases coming in, and we wanted to make sure that we're keeping our schools as safe as possible,” she said. “With the speed and the transmission that happens in the school, the risk was just too great and we did have to make that decision.”

York, Durham and Halton regions said Tuesday that they do not plan to follow suit in shutting down schools for the time being.

However they said they continue to “closely monitor” the situation in schools and will close individual schools as necessary.

Next week is spring break for most elementary and secondary students across the province. In February, the government delayed March Break by one month to keep students in the classroom and prevent further COVID-19 transmission.

Provincial health officials reported 236 more COVID-19 cases in Ontario schools today, including 207 student cases and 29 staff cases. There are currently 1,062 schools with at least one case of the virus and 83 schools are currently closed due to an outbreak.

On Saturday, Premier Doug Ford implemented a four-week provincewide emergency brake shutdown to curb rising infections driven by variants of concern.

Teachers say conditions unsafe

The closure of Toronto schools comes amid a chorus of calls from teacher unions for the government to do more to protect teachers.

Many teachers, the unions have said, are required to be in classrooms where children are eating without masks on during lunchtime and snack times.

Teachers have also argued that they should be prioritized for vaccinations if they are required to teach in the classroom.

Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation- Toronto President Leslie Wolfe told CP24 Tuesday that she welcomes the move but it should have happened sooner.

“It makes very little sense to me why it took so long actually for this decision to be made," she said.

She said the numbers in schools have been trending upward for the past two weeks.

“It befuddles me why when it's so clear that current measures are not working that it takes so much time and so much pressure from groups like ours before decisions are made to take into consideration the physical health and well-being of workers and students in schools.”

She said there were 10-12 workers across three schools who refused to work today because they felt it was unsafe.

“That's a huge step for anybody to take,” Wolfe said.

An online petition calling on the government to vaccinate teachers and support staff in Ontario had garnered around 65,000 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce's office issued a statement Tuesday saying that schools have remained safe through the pandemic according to Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams and local medical officers of health.

The statement accused teacher unions of "stoking fear" and said that 30 per cent of schools that are closed are closed due to staff shortages rather than COVID-19 and that 99 per cent of students and staff across Ontario do not currently have COVID-19.

The cumulative number of school-related cases in Ontario stands at 13,498 according to the latest figures available from the province.