TORONTO — Schools in four more public health units in southern Ontario will reopen for in-person learning on Monday, but students in several other regions will continue to learn online.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Thursday that students will be able to return to physical classrooms in the Ottawa, Eastern Ontario, Southwestern, and Middlesex-London public health units.
He said the government made the decision based on recommendations from the province's chief medical officer of health.
"The government agrees with the growing consensus in the medical community that returning students to in-person learning is essential to the wellbeing, development and mental health of children," Lecce said in a statement.
All students began their winter term online as part of a provincial lockdown and the government extended remote learning for many as Ontario continues to fight COVID-19.
Thursday's announcement came after the government allowed schools in seven other public health units to resume in-person learning this week. Schools in Northern Ontario, where virus rates are lower, returned to in-person learning on Jan. 11.
Students in all other public health units in southern Ontario – including those in Toronto, Peel and Windsor – continue to learn online.
The government said Thursday that the province's top doctor will continue to review public health trends and advise when in-person learning can resume in other public health units.
It also said that local public health units continue to have the authority to close schools based on their own circumstances. Parents can also continue to have their children enrolled in remote learning.
Schools in five hot spots – including those in the Greater Toronto Area – are set to remain online until Feb. 10.
Others in southern Ontario that are teaching students remotely do not yet have a specified date for when they can resume in-person learning.
On Thursday, the province's top doctor said the government hopes to be able to reopen the rest of Ontario's schools to in-person learning by Feb. 10.
But Dr. David Williams said much will depend on COVID-19 case rates in each community, and protections that are put in place to keep the virus out of schools.
"Can we put in place all the screening tools and methods we need to say, even if there is the presence of high transmission in the community, do you have a wall or protection around there," he said.
Lecce has 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.
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the province needs to cap class sizes at 15, ensure school ventilation is improved and provide paid sick days for all workers to make schools safer.
"Many parents and students are eager to see a return to in-person learning, but without proper safety measures from (Premier) Doug Ford, we're at risk of more illness and future school closures," she said in a statement.
Ontario reported 2,093 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and 56 more deaths linked to the virus.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press