TORONTO — Schools in just seven public health units in southern Ontario will reopen to in-person learning on Monday while the rest will continue teaching students online, the province announced Wednesday.
The government did not say how long online learning would continue for the remaining public health units, which include Ottawa, London, Ont., Halton Region and Durham Region.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government made its decision based on advice from the province's top doctor.
"Getting students back into class is our top priority," he said in a statement.
The seven public health units where in-person learning can resume are Grey Bruce; Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge; Hastings and Prince Edward Counties; Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington; Leeds, Grenville and Lanark; Peterborough; and Renfrew County.
Wednesday's announcement marked the latest move to extend online learning for several regions as Ontario continues to grapple with high levels of COVID-19.
In late December, the government announced that all schools would be closed to in-person learning for the first week of the winter term.
That closure was later extended to Jan. 25 for all schools in southern Ontario while students in northern Ontario returned to physical classrooms on Jan. 11.
The government then declared a state of emergency on Jan. 12 and extended online learning for schools in five hot spots – including Toronto and Peel Region – until Feb. 10.
Lecce said that as part of an effort to get students back in physical classrooms safely, the province will conduct asymptomatic testing at schools, enhance screening and require students from Grades 1 and up to wear masks.
A spokeswoman for Lecce said the province's chief medical officer of health will advise the government on when in-person learning can resume in the schools that are currently teaching all classes online.
The president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said Wednesday's announcement was confusing, and adds "chaos and uncertainty" to Ontario's school system.
Despite pledges from the government to bolster safety measures ahead of the return to class, Sam Hammond said he's seen no evidence that has taken place.
"It's just irresponsible, that the government is returning students and educators to many school boards as of Monday without any additional safety precautions or safety measures," he said.
The president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, which represents trustees, said if parents have questions about whether their school will reopen next week they should reach out to their local board.
Cathy Abraham said while the government has provided no timeline for reopening many other schools, she believes it will have to provide an update ahead of the Feb. 10 date it established for a return to class in hot spot regions.
"At some point before that there will have to be another decision made which is completely based on health numbers, as it should be," she said.
Meanwhile, in Simcoe-Muskoka, the local health unit said that the new U.K. variant of COVID-19 had been detected in preliminary tests of six residents of a Barrie, Ont., long-term care home.
The local medical officer of health said since the outbreak was declared at Roberta Place on Jan. 8, positive cases have "grown exponentially".
Medical experts have said the variant is more transmissible than other strains of the virus.
“The impact of this outbreak on the facility has been tragic and these interim results of a variant are extremely concerning for everyone,” Dr. Charles Gardner said in a statement.
As of Wednesday, the health unit said 122 residents and 69 staff had tested positive for the virus at the nursing home, and 19 residents had died.
Also on Wednesday, the government said Premier Doug Ford had reached out to COVID-19 vaccine maker Pfizer about production delays that were slowing deliveries of the shot and spoke to the head of the company's Canadian division.
“(The Premier) reiterated the serious impact these cancelled shipments will have on Ontario and sought answers as to why Canada isn’t receiving vaccines as quickly as other countries,” his office said a day after the premier had made a public appeal for more vaccines.
A spokeswoman for Pfizer Canada said the company heard Ford’s concerns and recognized the delays will make immunization efforts more difficult.
The production slowdown at Pfizer means Ontario will not receive any of the doses of the vaccine that were expected next week.
Ontario reported 2,655 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 89 more deaths linked to the virus.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press