Toronto is shuttering its schools, a day after thousands of children returned to classes after the Easter holiday, as public-health officials said they are being forced to overrule the Ontario government to implement measures needed to slow an alarming rise in COVID-19 infections.
At the same time, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, facing criticism for not issuing a stay-at-home order to curb more contagious COVID-19 variants, admonished the public on Tuesday for crowding shopping malls on the weekend, even though his government permitted non-essential retail to remain open.
Late Tuesday night, several media outlets reported Mr. Ford was preparing to shut down non-essential retail and return to previous curbside pickup restrictions. Official details are expected Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, was the latest local public-health official to use her authority to close schools to in-person learning. Schools in Toronto will be closed for at least two weeks, starting Wednesday, although the second week is the scheduled April break for staff and students.
Toronto Public Health said “difficult decisions” had to be made to protect the public.
“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. Stronger public health measures are required to reverse the surge of infection that the province currently faces,” the health unit said in a statement.
Educators and many families have called for classrooms to be closed to in-person learning, even as concern grows about the mental health and social well-being of children whose schooling has been disrupted yet again.
The leaders of children’s health organizations, including the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and the Hospital for Sick Children, wrote closing schools and not containing community transmission means “collectively, we have failed our children.” In a joint statement on Tuesday, they wrote school closings harm the learning, mental health and development of children. They said the government should implement strict measures, including paid sick days for essential workers, to reverse the trend in community transmission and reopen schools.
Alex Munter, the head of CHEO, said putting only children under stay-at-home orders by closing schools won’t address the situation.
“It’s heartbreaking that there seems to be a willingness to prevent kids from going to school but not to prevent adults from going to the mall or travelling between cities,” Mr. Munter said. “We need an all-hands-on-deck effort to reopen schools.”
The Toronto health unit did not fully explain why it decided to close schools less than 24 hours after it said classrooms would remain open, a decision that meant thousands of children attended school for just one day after the Easter long weekend.
Peel Public Health said on Monday its schools would close to in-person learning. Lawrence Loh, the local medical officer of health, said the region needed a “cooling-off period” with cases on the rise. Schools in Thunder Bay and Sudbury have been closed to in-person learning since March and students are learning remotely.
In a news conference on Tuesday, just ahead of Toronto Public Health’s announcement, Mr. Ford reiterated the government’s position that schools were safe, even though a quarter of schools have at least one case and more than 30 schools in Toronto alone were closed in recent days because of COVID-19 infections.
“It’s not happening in the schools. It’s happening when there’s a community spread in hot areas,” Mr. Ford said. The government is now targeting hot-spot communities in its vaccine plan.
The province’s vaccine rollout plan is scheduled to reach educators by mid-May, but opposition parties are calling for the government to vaccinate teachers during next week’s April break. Mr. Ford said the government is focused on vaccinating older populations that have a higher mortality rate, but said he is considering all options to reach school staff. He said he is working with Education Minister Stephen Lecce, but did not provide more details.
The Premier also expressed concern that large groups were gathering at indoor malls during Easter weekend, even though his government kept retailers with reduced capacity open under the provincial shutdown rules.
“It was absolutely jam packed,” Mr. Ford said of a video shared on social media of a Toronto mall. “A lot of people were going into the malls and doing their little wander around and coming out with no bags. So that tells me they were just out for an evening or a daily jaunt. You can’t do that.”
Mr. Ford’s cabinet met on Tuesday to discuss further restrictions, including a stay-at-home order. He said the government would be moving forward on new measures “very, very quickly,” with a particular focus on Toronto, Peel and York regions, which have 60 per cent of COVID cases.
On Tuesday, the province reported 3,065 cases of COVID-19, with 69 deaths since Thursday. Hospitalizations continue to grow, with 510 people – the highest number since the beginning of the pandemic – now in intensive care, up from 387 a week ago. Variants of concern make up 63 per cent of cases, said Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health. “The trends in Ontario are worsening,” she said Tuesday.
Earlier this week, Dr. de Villa, Dr. Loh and Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, wrote to the government, urging a provincewide stay-at-home order to reverse the spread of more contagious COVID-19 variants that are sending younger people to hospital. They asked the government to consider moving schools to online learning, where outbreaks are significant.
In a letter on Tuesday to the directors of education in Ottawa, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, Dr. Etches wrote she was not asking for schools in her city to close at this time and that the situation was “manageable.”
CAROLINE ALPHONSO, EDUCATION REPORTER
LAURA STONE, QUEEN’S PARK REPORTER
The Globe and Mail, April 6, 2021