Ontario’s education minister says the Progressive Conservatives will pay $200 to the parents of high school students early next year, extending a financial boost it initially offered only to the parents of elementary and middle schoolers.

Stephen Lecce offered the payment at a news conference on Tuesday, a day after Premier Doug Ford ordered a provincewide shutdown that includes keeping classrooms shuttered for longer than usual in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Applications for the assistance will be accepted between Jan. 11 and Feb. 8, he said.

“We are taking a one-time, proactive, preventive intervention at the front end of the school year — following the holidays, following New Year's Eve and Christmas and all that — to protect the incredible progress we've made in our schools,” he said.

Students in the province’s elementary schools will get an extra week at home, while high schoolers will learn remotely until a return to class on Jan. 25. Those in northern areas where COVID-19 is less prevalent will return earlier.

While Lecce argues that Ontario’s schools have not proven to be major sources of COVID-19 transmission, critics suggest asymptomatic younger people could well be spreading the virus undetected. Twenty per cent of Ontario schools had positive cases when classes broke for the holidays.

Lecce, who, since the pandemic started, has drip-fed information about his ministry’s response to schools, boards, students and parents, said more details on some $380 million in additional supports for schools — including more staff and better air ventilation — would be announced in early January.

In mid-November, Lecce said the government was thinking about extending the school break, but the next day said the idea was back off the table.

At that time, Lecce said a comprehensive strategy for handling the holidays would be released within one or two weeks.

Stephen Lecce offered the payment on Tuesday, a day after Premier Doug Ford ordered a provincewide shutdown that includes keeping classrooms shuttered for longer than usual in an effort to slow the spread of #COVID19. #onpoli #onted

Parents and teachers took to Twitter to express their frustrations with Lecce, with some suggesting the small direct payment was designed to placate parents and comes at the expense of adequate investment to ensure classrooms are safe.

“This year, I bought a medical-grade air cleaner for my classroom out of my OWN pocket,” wrote Becky Solole, an elementary school teacher in Brantford, noting that her class already exceeds the cap on class size and is expected to grow further in January.

Marit Stiles, the NDP’s education critic, said delaying news about the return to school until after classes had closed left administrators, staff and students reeling as they try to prepare for a short-term virtual learning stint.

The province has reported more than 2,000 COVID-19 cases per day for more than a week now, and has more people in intensive care due to the coronavirus than at any prior point in the pandemic.

The government had previously set aside $380 million to make a second one-time payment of $200 per child under 12 and $250 per child under the age of 21 with special needs. It spent $378 million on a payment offered in the weeks after the pandemic first hit.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Keep reading