Elementary students will not return to class for in-person learning until Jan. 25

A physically distanced classroom is seen amidst the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday, September 1, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio

Students in southern Ontario will not return to the classroom on Monday for in-person learning amid a surge in COVID-19 cases across the province.

Elementary schools in the southern part of the province (south of Sudbury) will remain closed until Jan. 25, which is two weeks later than the original reopening date.

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

The province also announced that the lockdown in northern Ontario will be extended until Jan. 25, which aligns with the end of the lockdown for the rest of the province.

The Ford government made the announcement by press release on Thursday.

"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 a written statement. "That's why we're extending the remote learning period for students in southern Ontario and the shutdown period for northern Ontario."

"We have to get the numbers down and today's measures will help us continue to stop the spread of this deadly virus."

Ford said he received new data Wednesday night that indicates COVID-19 positivity rates amongst children have been increasing at alarming rates. He blamed the increased positivity rates in children as the result of people getting together over the holidays.

The data showed that during the week of Nov. 29, the positivity rate among children between the ages of four and 11 was 5.22 per cent, after 580 children tested positive for COVID-19. By the week of Dec. 27, the province recorded a 116 per cent increase in the positivity rate among the same age group, jumping up to 15.66 per cent, with 720 positive cases.

Similarly, during the week of Nov. 29, 187 children aged 12 to 13 tested positive for COVID-19 in the province, putting the group's positivity rate also at 5.44 per cent. By the week of Dec. 27, there was a 98 per cent increase in the positivity rate among that age group, up to 19.78 per cent after 284 children tested positive.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said Thursday that while he's ordering schools to close with "much reluctance" it is a necessary step.

"I know this is a tough one," Williams said of the extended closure. "This is tough for everyone."

"We are trying to get the right balance here where we have a deferral of the reopening for two weeks while we get these other things in place because we want the schools to be open and we want them to stay open," he said.

News of the extended closure comes just days after Ontario’s education minister confirmed the start dates for in-person learning at schools would not change amid a rising number of COVID-19 cases over the holidays.

In a letter sent to parents on Saturday, Stephen Lecce reiterated that "schools are not a source of rising community transmission" and that the institutions have been protected in part due to the extended holiday break.

The extended closure was announced as Ontario reported 3,519 new cases of COVID-19 and 89 more deaths -- both daily highs for the province.