Students in the London and Middlesex region, like their peers throughout the rest of the province, will be having an April break rather than a March break this year.
The province announced Thursday that it was postponing March break until the week of April 12 in an effort to reduce COVID-19 spread as students return to in-person classes. March break had been set to run the week of March 15.
Ontario’s Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the decision to delay, not cancel, March break was made on the advice of public health officials, adding that it was critical to avoid a repeat of the spike in youth-related COVID-19 cases that occurred over the winter break.
The news comes a week after elementary and secondary students returned to in-person learning in London and Middlesex.
A statement from the Thames Valley District School Board’s director of education appeared to show support for the move, saying the well-being of staff, students and their families was a key priority for them.
“The decision to postpone this year’s March Break was made in the interests of public safety and is based on the guidance of provincial and local public health experts,” Mark Fisher said.
“I want to thank our students and their families, as well as all of our Thames Valley staff, for their understanding and incredible resilience as we work together to keep our communities safe and healthy by reducing the spread of COVID-19.”
His compeer at the London District Catholic School Board was supportive of the delay, noting in an interview with 980 CFPL that the local community had made big inroads when it came to daily case numbers.
“If the medical officials and public health now believe that by delaying the March break to keep these numbers low, then we’re obviously in favour of it, because the last thing that we want to do is have to close our schools again,” said Linda Staudt, LDCSB’s director of education.
“We’re hoping from here that we see continued improvement and really nobody wants for us to take a step backwards.”
In reordering the school calendar, Staudt said the board didn’t anticipate any major changes for elementary students but said there may be a “slight tweaking” when it came to its secondary octomester schedule.
“It shouldn’t be too dramatic, and it may only be a day or so change, so all in all, it shouldn’t affect us too greatly in terms of our scheduling,” she said, adding that information will be sent home next week to students, parents and guardians.
“If we just can hang in there and continue to work together, I think once we get to the spring and then with the vaccine, there’s hope… It’s a bit of a delay. It’s not a cancellation. And we just hope and pray that continued improvement comes our way.”
Ahead of the province’s announcement, several parties had voiced opposition to the idea of pushing back March break, including the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, the Ontario Public School Board Association and the Opposition New Democrats.
All had all asked for the break to go ahead as planned, saying families, students and teachers needed it. On Monday, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath cited the importance of the break for the mental and emotional health of parents, educators and students.
Four teachers’ unions decried the postponement in a joint statement Thursday and called on the government to reverse the move.
The group said going ahead with the plan despite opposition from unions and stakeholders shows a disregard for front-line workers. They also questioned why the province was beginning to lift restrictions if there were concerns about travel and gatherings during March break.
In an interview on 980 CFPL’s The Afternoon Show with Jess Brady, Craig Smith, president of the Thames Valley local for the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, described the news as “another big disruption in a year that’s punctuated with big disruptions.”
“There was, within the education sector, a common message to the minister of education from those who know how the system works and what kids need, in particular as the year unfolds,” he said.
“The minister, of course, has chosen not to follow that and has made his announcement.”
Smith argues that March break occurs when it does to lessen the impact of the long haul between the end of Christmas and the spring — a haul that’s felt much longer amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“To have a blithe decision made to move it a month down the road is going to make it extremely difficult, I think, for everyone to get through.”
All students began the new year learning remotely as part of a provincial lockdown. The government then took a gradual approach to reopening physical classrooms, starting with northern and rural areas.
Students in three COVID-19 hot spots in the GTA will be the last ones in the province to return to physical classrooms on Feb. 16.
The government, Lecce says, has been taking a number of steps to enhance safety in schools, like more stringent screening for high schoolers and asymptomatic testing across the province.
In a statement Thursday, the president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions criticized the move to delay March break, saying Lecce had failed to implement other pandemic safety measures like mandatory screening and universal paid sick leave.
“The minister can delay March break and claim he’s doing it in the interest of public health. But if he’s not carrying out the proposals above during the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s putting students, workers and families at risk,” said Laura Walton.
Public health officials have sounded the alarm over the spread of new more contagious virus variants that could spark a third wave of infections.
New projections released Thursday by health experts advising the province say “aggressive” vaccination and maintaining a stay-at-home order will help Ontario avoid a third wave and another lockdown.
While case, hospitalization and positivity rates have fallen provincewide, they say variant strains of the virus remain a serious concern and cases will likely grow again in late February, which will lead to more admissions to intensive care units.
London and Middlesex is set to leave the stay-at-home order on Tuesday and return to the province’s colour-coded framework. Either the orange or red tier have been floated as likely possibilities.
The region has seen at least four cases involving the variant B.1.1.7, first detected in the U.K.
None have been found that involve the variant B.1.1.248, which was first detected in Brazil, or variant B.1.351 — also known as the N501Y.V2 variant — first detected in South Africa.
— With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter of The Canadian Press
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