Ontario is closing all public schools for two weeks following March break amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Premier Doug Ford announced Thursday.
It came as the province announced 17 new confirmed cases – its biggest surge to date – bringing the total to 59.
The decision to close schools from March 14 to April 5 is based on advice from Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Ford said in a joint statement with Health Minister Christine Elliott and Education Minister Stephen Lecce.
“We recognize the significant impact this decision will have on families, students, schools, as well as the broader community, but this precaution is necessary to keep people safe,” they said.
Chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams said that he was concerned both with the likelihood of many children travelling over March break, and the fact that two of the new cases Ontario announced Thursday were in people under the age of 18. One is a baby.
“That substantiated my concerns that children can have it,” he said. “While I don’t believe there’s much illness, it does give the potential of bringing back infection and introducing it into various settings, including schools and daycares.”
Lecce said “continuity of learning” during the extended closure is important, and he is looking at options with an eye to making another announcement shortly.
“There is a plan that is being finalized that will ensure learning continues in this province for students in Ontario,” he said.
After those two weeks, Lecce said he will re-evaluate the situation and see if further steps are required.
Ontario is days away from opening a wave of dedicated COVID-19 assessment centres, the province announced Thursday.
The centres will open in the next few days at William Osler Health System’s Peel Memorial site, The Ottawa Hospital, North York General Hospital, Mackenzie Health in York Region, Scarborough Health Network and Trillium Health Partners.
They will be located in separate spaces to protect other patients. More centres are set to be established across the province in the next few weeks.
The province also announced it will extend the one-year transition funding it offered to municipalities to help deal with public health funding cuts that took effect this year.
Given the rapidly changing domestic and global situation, the provincial government house leader said Thursday he is working on a motion with opposition leaders that would allow for the suspension of the legislature if necessary.
It will already not sit after Thursday until March 23, and Paul Calandra said such a motion would be a way to extend that break without proroguing the legislature.
The Progressive Conservative government is set to table its budget March 25.
“It is our goal, obviously, to present a budget in the legislature and I think that is very important to us,” Calandra said. “I think that’s the place where it should happen.”
Premier Doug Ford and several top cabinet ministers were in Ottawa on Thursday for a first ministers’ meeting, but the in-person discussions were postponed after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, went into self-isolation. Gregoire Trudeau had recently begun exhibiting mild flu-like symptoms following a trip to London.
Ford returned to Toronto to assist in overseeing the COVID-19 response, his spokeswoman said.
Ontario has also approved new physician billing codes for telephone assessments, which will allow doctors to do more evaluations remotely, rather than having people come into their clinics. The province is also in the early stages of planning to establish at-home testing.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said he will be assessing COVID-19’s economic impact on the city and looking for ways to protect jobs and the economy.
“These events have already extracted a heavy cost, from conferences cancelled, to restaurant tables not filled, to hotel rooms that are empty, and to workers’ hours that have been lost and will be lost,” he said. “That total cost will expand as we exercise greater care, as we’re discussing today, and as the days pass.”
It doesn’t appear any of Ontario’s new cases are due to community transmission. New patients reported Thursday are in regions across southern Ontario, including Toronto, Peel, Waterloo and Muskoka, and all have been released into self-isolation.
Some of the patients had recently travelled to places including the United States, Spain and Italy. The 59 total cases included five that have been resolved, meaning the patients have had two negative tests at least 24 hours apart.
Most people diagnosed with COVID-19 experience mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and the vast majority of those who contract the virus recover.
Story by The Canadian Press