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School closure may be extended, education minister warns parents

Graduating students won't be impacted by closure, developing COVID-19 situation, open letter from Stephen Lecce also says
File photo/The Canadian Press

As the two-week shutdown of publicly funded schools in Ontario officially begins today to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Education Minister Stephen Lecce issued an open letter to Ontario parents that makes clear school closures may be extended due to the rapidly evolving public health crisis.

“Although publicly funded schools are ordered closed until April 6, the fluidity of developments around COVID-19 means we are preparing in the event the closure period is further extended,” Lecce said in the letter being shared on social media by York Region District School Board last night. 

“Specifically, we are working to ensure that students will be able to continue their coursework and credit accumulation, even when we aren’t able to be in a classroom setting.”

This comes as the province grapples with 503 cases of the new respiratory virus to date, six deaths, and growing evidence that the disease known as COVID-19 is being community spread.

In York Region, there were 55 positive cases as this morning, which include three in Newmarket, and one death that was reported at a March 22 news conference by medical officer of health Dr. Karim Kurji.

Lecce issued a ministerial order on March 12 to close all schools in the province based on the advice of Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams. 

Ontario’s state of emergency runs until March 31, at which time it will be evaluated.

Lecce said he believes it is important to respond to the “sense of fear and concern that children may be feeling”, and noted Kids Help Phone as a resource.

“During this time, I encourage you to continue to have open conversations with your children about COVID-19 and acknowledge that their reactions to this period — however emotional — are understandable and normal,” he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also addressed children in his March 22 COVID-19 update, and issued a special thank you to kids who are forced to go without playdates, cancel sleepovers, wash their hands a lot, and have seen their playgrounds shut down.

"I know this is a big change, but we have to do this not just for ourselves, but for our grandparents," and others including those working at hospitals.

Meanwhile, Lecce said that graduating students will not have their ability to graduate impacted by the two-week closure and the COVID-19 developments.

The EQAO assessments for this school year have been cancelled, and a change in graduation requirements so the completion of the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) has been approved for students on track to graduate. 

The education ministry is also working with the Ministry of Colleges and Universities and the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development to ensure students can apply to post-secondary education, including apprenticeship, college and university, regardless of the situation this semester, said Lecce.

“In this time, it is more important than ever that we take every precaution to ensure that, when students return to class, they return to a safe and healthy learning environment,” he said. 

The education ministry is providing all school boards with access to funding for the deep cleaning of school facilities, childcare centres and school buses. 

“Following the closure period, we will minimize any risks to students, learners and our educators,” he said.

Lecce also urged local families returning from March break travel to follow the “strong recommendations” of Ontario’s chief medical officer of health and self-isolate for 14 days upon return. 

“This means staying at home and avoiding contact with other people to help prevent the spread of disease to members of your family who may not have travelled with you or to your community,” he said. “If you think you or a family member have coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms or have been in close contact with someone who has it, in addition to self-isolation, take the self-assessment test here to help determine how to seek further care.”

Here are some resources for parents and students:

The education ministry has launched an online portal for students in kindergarten to Grade 12 for continued learning while at home. The education minister also noted officials are working with school boards to ensure students who do not have access to computers gain the technology needed to participate. Visit Learn at Home.

Kids Help Phone, which offers professional counselling, information and referrals and volunteer-led, text-based support to young people in both English and French. Visit Kids Help Phone online, call 1-800-668-6868, or text CONNECT to 686868.