Toronto

Toronto Public Health closing all schools starting Wednesday as COVID-19 cases surge

Toronto Public Health will force all schools to close on Wednesday and have students learn remotely instead, it announced with Tuesday's classes nearly done for the day.

City reported 955 new cases on Tuesday

Toronto will close all schools on Wednesday in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the city, a step the province didn't take when it pulled its 'emergency brake' last Thursday. Peel Region has done the same. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Toronto's public health agency will force all schools to close on Wednesday and have students learn remotely instead, it announced Tuesday.

Toronto Public Health (TPH) said in a statement the shutdown is needed to reverse a surge of new COVID-19 infections — the city reported 955 new cases earlier in the day.

Child-care centres attached to schools will be allowed to open but won't be able to accommodate students whose classes were closed under the order, TPH said.

The closure means more than 300,000 students, including those who attend private or independent schools, will return to learning from home exclusively.

"The spread of COVID-19 has never been greater in Toronto, with variants of concern increasing both the risk of transmission and the risk of serious illness or death," the statement said.

TPH is using a Section 22 order — which allows the city's medical officer of health to strengthen rules beyond what the province has put in place — to close schools to in-class learning from April 7 to April 18, a span that will include the April break. That could be extended if the situation doesn't improve, TPH noted.

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The Ontario government has allowed schools to remain open despite using a provincewide "emergency brake" to deal with the third wave of the pandemic.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said he asked for one additional day to give parents time to prepare, but Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city's medical officer of health, said the shutdown is needed immediately.

"I support her taking any action she believes is needed in order to keep people, especially our children, safe during this pandemic," Tory said in an email statement. 

Others were quick to react as well.

"We understand this may not be the news families had hoped for, especially given the province's recent announcement, but recognize the critical need to take steps as directed by TPH to limit the spread of COVID-19 and variants of concern," said Shazia Vlahos, spokesperson for the Toronto Catholic District School Board, in a statement to CBC Toronto.

The decision comes a day after neighbouring Peel Region opted to shut down its schools on Monday.

Province maintains schools are safe

Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said the provincial government believes schools are safe and not sources of transmission.

"The data shows that schools have remained safe through this pandemic as confirmed by Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health and local Medical Officers of Health," Clark said in the email.

"It is our firm belief that schools should be open for in-class learning, as they are critical to student mental health and safe, as confirmed by leading medical leaders in Ontario."  

Ontario's Education Ministry reported 236 school-related cases provincewide on Tuesday, including 207 students and 29 staff members. About 22 per cent of schools currently have at least one reported case, while 83 schools, or 1.7 per cent of Ontario 4,828 publicly funded schools, are closed due to COVID-19.

The Children's Health Coalition, which includes experts from a number of Ontario children's hospitals, put out an open letter saying schools should be the last thing to close during the pandemic and shuttering them will harm at-risk kids.

"Ending in-person learning should only be done as a last resort and will be ineffective if not accompanied by other stricter measures that include things like … paid sick days for essential workers, closure of non-essential retail businesses and where possible, sending all staff to work from home," the letter says.

"Collectively, we have failed our children."

You can read the full letter via the tweet below.

Meanwhile, Premier Doug Ford hinted further restrictions could be coming on Wednesday after sounding the alarm about the crowds at shopping malls — something his government's policy currently allows.

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