Premier Doug Ford is dangling the possibility that Ontario's already-delayed March Break for schools could be postponed yet again as the province confronts its third wave of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, some unions representing teachers and education workers are proposing a different approach to the upcoming school holidays: switching to online-only classes after Easter until at least late April, but keeping the existing plan for March Break.
The uncertainty comes with Ontario schools reporting a record weekly number of new COVID-19 infections.
Meanwhile, the provincial trend of daily cases is higher than it's been since late January, and the director of the province's scientific advisory group is describing the pandemic as "out of control."
The government announced in February that the annual spring break for Ontario's two million students — previously set for the week of March 15 — would be postponed until the week of April 12. The justification at the time: having two million students on holiday would increase the risk of spreading the virus
Given that logic, the government is now confronted with questions about the fate of the rescheduled school break. COVID-19 cases are on a sharp rise and projected to be far worse in mid-April than they were in mid-March.
Postponing the break is not the current plan, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Monday.
"We're continuing to work with the chief medical officer of health to make sure that the April break is safe, that students and their parents continue to follow the rules, as overwhelmingly they have," Lecce said at Queen's Park in response to a question from CBC News.
However, Ford sounded far less certain than Lecce when asked whether the break will proceed as scheduled.
"To be very frank, I don't want to predict two weeks out," Ford said Monday during a news conference in Niagara Falls. "I can't give you a direct answer right now."
Ford said the government will let parents know the plan by the end of this week.
The challenge of keeping schools safe
Education unions are pushing back at the idea of another postponement to the break. However, some are raising concerns about the risks if kids return to the classroom immediately after the looming holidays.
"We call for a shift to online learning for the four days after the [Easter] long weekend, and for at least the first week after the spring break in order to keep schools as safe as possible," said a joint letter from the Toronto chapters of the elementary and secondary teachers' federations to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and Toronto Public Health.
A move to remote learning following a holiday is not without precedent. After the two-week Christmas break, when the second wave of COVID-19 was peaking, all schools in the province were on a remote-learning-only model until at least Jan. 11, and schools in the hardest-hit regions of the province did not fully resume in-person classes until mid-February.
The TDSB, Ontario's largest school board, reminded principals and vice-principals on Monday of the possibility that classrooms, schools or the entire system could be quickly transitioned to all-remote learning.
"We have received no indication that schools will close, however, we do want to make sure we are prepared to implement any decision smoothly and efficiently to be able to continue to support our students," said the letter, provided to CBC News by TDSB officials.
Cases trending upward
On Monday, Ontario's seven-day-average trend of new daily COVID-19 cases hit its highest level since Jan. 28.
The count of new COVID-19 cases in Ontario schools for last week was the highest it's been since the pandemic began. Schools reported 1,222 cases among staff and students for the week of March 22. The previous high was 999, the week of Dec. 14, just before schools closed for the winter break.
For parents outside a school in Toronto's west end, the uncertainty around the April break is just the latest event in a tumultuous year.
"My kid's so, so happy to be in school, but it would be so nice for the teachers to have a break. It's been quite a school year for them," said Taryn Diamond, who has a child in junior kindergarten.
Catherine Barker, also the parent of a kindergarten student, expressed exasperation at the government's handling of the school system in the pandemic.
"They've done such a terrible job that I wouldn't be surprised if there are more terrible things that they're doing, and adding more confusion and more frustration for schools and parents," Barker said.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.
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