Christmas break won't come early in Ontario schools, but could students stay home longer?
School boards fear students, staff could return with COVID-19 after holiday gatherings
With COVID-19 cases surging in Ontario, the Doug Ford government is ruling out sending the province's students home early for Christmas break, but it does appear to be leaving the door open for a tweak of the school schedule in the new year.
"We are currently not considering modifications to the school year calendar for 2020," a Ministry of Education spokesperson told CBC Toronto in a statement.
But when asked if the government might consider changes in January (which would modify the school year calendar for 2021), the spokesperson did not reply.
"Our focus remains on doing everything we can to keep students and educators safe, while keeping schools open and students learning in person. We will continue to follow public health advice to ensure safe school environments," the statement said.
Unless altered by local school boards, the Christmas break for Ontario public schools this year is from Dec. 21 until Jan. 4.
Questions about the length of the break come amid a rise in new COVID-19 cases. The release of "alarming" modelling on the spread of the novel coronavirus has forced the Premier Doug Ford's government to change its approach.
On Friday, the premier announced changes to the benchmarks used for moving regions of the province into stages of restrictions. The changes do not affect public schools, but critics say students, education workers and their families could contract the disease as long as the virus spreads in the community..
First week back a concern
The week of Jan. 4 is a concern for the Council of Ontario Directors of Education. The organization's executive director Tony Pontes says the issue was raised with the government three weeks ago.
"Directors raised the concern for possible higher risk during the week following the official break, because of the increased social gatherings that are likely due to Christmas and New Year's," Pontes told CBC Toronto.
The council is suggesting mandating virtual learning for the week of Jan. 4 to keep staff and students home for a longer period of time.
"With New Year's Eve only three days before the return to school on Jan. 4, directors are worried that there may be increased spread of the virus and that symptoms might not show until the middle of that week," Pontes said.
The council has not received any word from the Ministry of Education that such a plan could be implemented. Pontes says he understands the decision would be "very complex."
Epidemiologist and Western University professor Nitin Mohan says an extension or alteration of the Christmas break to keep students and staff home longer could help slow COVID-19 spread in schools. But Mohan says it would have to happen alongside other measures to contain community spread of the virus.
"Are we keeping kids home for an extended period of time, but keeping bars, gyms and restaurants open? Because I hope that's not the case."
Mohan also says the ministry needs to make the decision with the mental health of students in mind. Forcing them to switch their routine during an already tumultuous year could be detrimental, he warns.
'Community transmission is out of control'
People for Education executive director Annie Kidder says an extended break is a "sensible idea" after the spike in COVID-19 cases Ontario experienced following Thanksgiving.
But she adds keeping schools open beyond the break must be a priority, for the mental health and well-being of students and families. Schools shouldn't be kept closed in order for the rest of society to carry on as normal, Kidder says.
She believes it has to be the other way around.
"We need a lot more restrictions in the community in order to keep schools open," Kidder said.
Rachel Huot, who has two school-aged children, is a member of the Ontario Parent Action Network. Keeping schools open is also a priority for her.
She views the possible extension of the Christmas break as a reflection of the Ford government's failure to contain COVID-19.
"Community transmission is out of control, and I don't think our schools can be safe when it's this high."