03/20/2020 17:46 EDT

Doug Ford Acknowledges School Closures May Last Much Longer

The province is rolling out an online learning tool for students stuck at home because of COVID-19.

TORONTO — Ontario Premier Doug Ford pointed parents and students toward online learning resources while schools are closed due to COVID-19, while acknowledging Friday those closures may have to be extended and more services “shut down.”

Ford said the “learn at home” online portal doesn’t replace school, but is meant to address parents’ concerns that kids will fall behind during this period.

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks at a news conference as Education Minister Stephen Lecce listens at Queen's Park in Toronto on March 20, 2020.

“As a father myself, I know parents always want the best for their children,” the premier said. “Parents understand why schools and daycares are closed ... but I also know from speaking to parents that they’re concerned about ensuring their child will continue to learn while at home.”

Asked if parents should prepare for school closures to last longer than two weeks, Ford said they should prepare for “pretty well anything.”

The province has not taken the step of urging all non-essential businesses to close, as the City of Toronto has done. Asked about a potential California-style lockdown, Ford said “everything’s on the table.”

‘I won’t hesitate’

“I won’t hesitate to shut anything and everything down once I get the advice from the COVID-19 command table and the chief medical officer,” he said.

This is the critical time period for social distancing, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health said, as many people return from March break or other travel.

“If we don’t do it stringently ... then it will go longer again because we have not maintained that type of discipline in that time,” Dr. David Williams said.

Ford has said social distancing is necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ensure the health-care system doesn’t get overwhelmed. Ontario’s cabinet was to discuss on Friday ways to provide care for the children of front-line health-care workers and first responders, Ford said.

The province reported 50 new COVID-19 cases Friday morning, bringing the total in the province to 308, including five resolved cases and two deaths.

That’s Ontario’s largest single-day increase in new cases, but Health Minister Christine Elliott said the growth isn’t surprising given the numbers of Canadians returning home from travel abroad.

No information is listed for about half of the new cases, but two people are listed as being hospitalized and four are in a long-term care home in the Durham Region.

It’s not yet known how the four people in the facility — ranging in age from their 60s to their 90s — contracted the virus.

“It is very concerning because of course most of the residents in long-term care homes are very vulnerable,” Elliott said.

“Our public health officials are there now, they are thoroughly investigating the situation, contacting first of all the families of the people who have contracted COVID-19, finding out if any of them have COVID-19 symptoms, if they’ve been travelling, trying to find the source of this so that we can make sure that none of the other residents are going to be compromised.”

Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health said there is a second long-term care facility cluster, in the Haliburton region.

Backlog of tests hits 5,400

Ford said early Friday afternoon that the province had processed more than 3,000 tests in the previous 24 hours. But a backlog of pending test results continued to grow, reaching 5,485 pending cases as of Friday morning.

Ontario now has 38 dedicated COVID-19 assessment centres open, Ford said.

The solicitor general also announced Friday that in order to try to slow the spread of COVID-19, some inmates will be released early. The use of temporary absences will be expanded for low-risk inmates near the end of their sentence, Sylvia Jones said in a statement.

The Ontario Parole Board will also be allowed to conduct hearings electronically or through writing, rather than solely in-person, Jones announced.

Premier of Ontario/YouTube
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce unveils online learning tools for students to use while schools are closed to stop the spread of COVID-19 at Queen's Park on Friday.

In the education file, the resources announced Friday offer interactive activities for elementary students and a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses for high school students.

Many of the online activities are from TVO, the province’s public broadcaster, whose television schedule is also being changed to add more educational programming for kids during the day.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has ordered the school closure for two weeks following this week’s March break, but acknowledged that may have to be extended.

“If Ontario’s chief medical officer of health recommends closing schools beyond April 5, the government will unveil a second phase of learning at home,” Lecce said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2020.

With a file from Emma Paling

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