Education Minister Stephen Lecce welcomed back “courageous” students across Ontario after six months away from the classroom Tuesday, while the province’s health minister put the kibosh on any further loosening of pandemic rules amid a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Health Minister Christine Elliott painted that pause as a necessary step the Progressive Conservative government was taking to reduce the spread of the virus among two million students, more than 120,000 teachers and countless other staff going back to school this week and next.
“We're really concentrating on getting all of our students back to school safely and having them remain healthy,” Elliott said at a news conference with Lecce, Premier Doug Ford, and provincial health authorities. “But the reality is that spread in the community will also likely mean spread in the schools.”
The government has therefore decided to halt any further expansion of the allowed size of social circles or number of people who can attend sporting and other events for four weeks, she said.
“We want to keep the community transmission very low, so that it won't get into our schools, so our children will be safe,” she added.
Critics of the provincial government contend that if safety in schools was such a high priority, they would have invested more money to ensure class sizes were small enough to enable adequate physical distancing.
Lecce had earlier recorded a short video he posted on Twitter that applauded the “courage” of students going back to school.
“I want you to know every single person, from your parents to your educators, your principals and your government, we are behind you, we are excited for you, and we're proud of your courage, and we’re proud of your commitment to get back into the class safely,” he said.
“But you’re not behind us,” actor and political activist Sarah Polley wrote on Twitter. “Because your government won’t give us smaller class sizes, which is an essential part of keeping everyone safe. You already know this.”
Lecce acknowledged “there may be some causation” between COVID-19 infection rates and poorer communities and provided no detail when asked how the province would address learning gaps caused by the ad-hoc online programming that closed out the last school year and left those with fewer resources further behind their peers.
Ontario welcomes students back to classrooms on the same day it froze the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions due to an increase of cases #onpoli #onted
“School boards, supported by the Ministry of Education, are putting more resources, what we're calling intensively staffed resources, into those communities that have higher risk,” he said.
Ford and Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer of health, both said a recent increase in the number of daily COVID-19 cases mostly stemmed from large gatherings and new arrivals not adhering to quarantine rules.
The province reported 185 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and 190 on Monday.
Ford said most people are abiding by public health guidance, but he implored people who are still holding large weddings and other events to postpone them or limit the number of guests.
He encouraged neighbours to call police on people hosting large gatherings and said the force should be laying charges.
“We have to start putting the hammer down on people who don't want to follow protocols and guidelines because it's going to affect every single one of us,” he said.
He then turned his attention to the image of university students rushing out to all-night parties on campus, citing the daughter of someone he was speaking to on the weekend saying her roommates were going to a big party.
“I always brag (that) we have the brightest students anywhere in the world in university and college,” Ford said. “Prove it.”
“I don't want to sound like some dad lecturing you, I'm just talking to you as a friend, as a premier — don’t go to these parties,” Ford said.
Alastair Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer