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Delayed start for online classes as demand grows in some Ontario school boards

The Canadian Press | posted Monday, Sep 14th, 2020

Some Ontario school boards are delaying the start of virtual learning due to a growing demand for online education in the run-up to back-to-school.

Three Toronto-area boards say they’ve seen a surge in parents opting to keep their kids out of the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic in the eleventh hour, further complicating the already difficult task of co-ordinating classes.

The Peel District School Board, for instance, says it had to push back live online classes because 10,000 students signed up for virtual learning in the past week.

It says such classes will now start on Sept. 21 for elementary students and Sept. 22 for high schoolers — a week’s delay — so the board can wrangle more staff to account for the 64,000 students who are now learning from home.

The Halton District School Board advised parents Friday that online learning will begin on Wednesday rather than Monday because of “recent and increased demand” for the remote option.

That board says it working through a “significant” waitlist for virtual school and advised people who are currently attending in-person classes to continue doing so, as some virtual classes are full.

Meanwhile on Thursday, the Toronto District School Board announced that while elementary students attending classes in-person will have a staggered start to the school year on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, those doing online learning — and most high school students — will begin on Thursday.

“Due to the large number of families who have selected Virtual School (more than 66,000 students), we require additional time to staff and timetable to ensure a more consistent opening for all staff and students,” the board said in a letter to parents posted on its website.

The spread of COVID-19 has increased in recent weeks, with the province reporting more than 200 new cases of the virus in each of the last three days. Toronto and Peel Region have been particularly hard hit, often reporting dozens of new cases each day.

Ontario legislature resumes as pandemic dominates the agenda

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Monday, Sep 14th, 2020

Ontario’s legislature returns for its fall session on Monday, but with the COVID-19 pandemic still affecting daily life, the Progressive Conservative government’s house leader says it will not be business as usual.

Paul Calandra says the legislature will continue to respect public health rules while returning to its regular four-day-a-week schedule for proceedings.

He says the government will be focused in the coming weeks on the impacts of COVID-19 on the economy, school reopenings, and the health-care system.

Calandra says Ontario’s 2020-2021 budget — which was delayed by the pandemic — will be delivered on Nov. 15.

The government is also expected to table a formal report on the state of emergency declared by the province earlier this year in response to the pandemic.

Calandra says the government is also leaving itself leeway in the legislative schedule in case it needs to introduce additional legislation to address COVID-19 this fall.

“We’re seeing the (COVID-19 case) numbers are creeping up so if we get into a second wave, we want to be able to react quickly,” Calandra said in an interview. “Should time be needed on the legislative schedule to pass bills, we’re building that in.”

In March, the Progressive Conservative government said its deficit would reach $20.5 billion by the end of 2020-2021. But in August, Finance Minister Rod Phillips said that due to billions more in spending required by the ongoing pandemic, the number is set to reach $38.5 billion.

Calandra said the government will ensure the health-care system gets needed funding and that small and medium-sized businesses also receive support this fall.

“Even for hard-core fiscal conservatives like me, we know that this is a time when you make investments for people … but at the same time, you fix those areas that you can fix and improve your response,” he said. “So, I think you’ll start to see a lot more of that.”

NDP legislator Marit Stiles said the official Opposition will focus on pressing the government for smaller class sizes, overhauling long-term care, and job creation.

“Returning to normal is just not going to be good enough,” Stiles said. “This pandemic has shown where we have these giant gaps, whether it’s in long-term care or education or those folks who have low wages, unstable jobs.”

While politicians will return to the legislature Monday until the house rises again in December, the building remains closed to the public. Visitors will not be permitted in the spectator galleries of the house because of the pandemic.

Survivor of Oshawa mass shooting thanks supporters, first responders

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Sep 11th, 2020

The woman who survived the recent mass shooting of her family in Oshawa is thanking supporters, first responders and the medical workers aiding her recovery.

In a statement issued through the Durham Regional Police Service, Loretta Traynor says her family is “profoundly grateful’”for the support they’ve received in the past week.

Traynor’s husband, Chris, and three of the couple’s children were shot dead in the family’s home in the early hours of last Friday.

Loretta Traynor was wounded in the attack and the couple’s fourth child, Sam, was not home and is now by his mother’s side.

Police say the attacker, 48-year-old Mitchell Lapa of Winnipeg, was a relative of the family and an “uninvited person” to the home.

He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Ford prepared to ask surgeons to start working weekends to clear backlog

MICHELLE MCQUIGGE, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Sep 11th, 2020

Ontario’s surgeons may be asked to start working weekends in order to clear a major backlog of procedures delayed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the premier said Thursday as he pledged funding to help tackle the issue.

Doug Ford’s comments came nine days after modelling research painted a stark picture of surgery wait times across the province.

The data, published earlier this month in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, suggested more than 148,000 procedures were postponed between mid-March, when elective operations were cancelled due to the lockdown, and May, when those restrictions eased. Researchers estimated the backlog would take at least a year and a half to clear.

Ford pegged the backlog at more than 180,000 on Thursday as he said government officials are working on solutions to address the issue.

“We’re working with our minister of health and our health table to see if we can open up a lot of these surgery rooms,” Ford said at a news conference. “We have funding to ask the docs … and the hospitals to open up surgeries, start working Saturdays and Sundays to get rid of the backlog.”

The proposal came as news to Dr. David Willliams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, who declined to comment on the idea but said the health command table co-ordinating much of the province’s pandemic response is discussing ways to address the backlog.

Ministry of Health spokesman Travis Kann said a “fall preparedness plan” that’s currently in development will contain unspecified measures to address the surgery waitlist, adding details would be released in the coming weeks.

The modelling research, published Sept. 1, did not account for additional physician hours in its projections. But the data suggested the wait list could be eliminated in 84 weeks if practitioners hit a target of 717 procedures per week.

Its authors said the data could play an important role in health planning moving forward.

“The magnitude of the surgical backlog from COVID-19 raises important implications for planning for the recovery phase and for possible second waves of the pandemic in Ontario,” study co-author Dr. Jonathan Irish, a surgeon at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, said when the research was published.

The researchers argued health systems “cannot go back to business as usual” if they want to manage the impact on patients, and must find innovative solutions to prepare for future waves of the novel coronavirus.

Ford did not indicate how much money the government has earmarked to cover the cost of additional surgeon hours or operating room time, simply saying “the funds are there.”

NDP health-care critic France Gelinas argued that finances, rather than working hours, will be the key to addressing the backlog.

She said doctors and other medical professionals already work weekends and other statutory holidays, calling the idea of asking them to put in additional time “disrespectful.”

The problem, she said, lies with underfunded hospitals that are unable to cover the cost of additional operating room time or provide enough patient beds.

Gelinas noted that while surgeons can bill the provincial health insurance program for their time, the rest of the operating room team is paid for by the hospital.

“It’s not very useful to disrespect surgeons by pretending they’re taking weekends off when they are not,” she said. “Fund our hospitals properly and they will open up more OR time, work on the backlog and make sure that we address the overcrowding in our hospitals.”

Trudeau agrees to virtual meeting devoted to federal health transfers to provinces

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Sep 11th, 2020

His agreement during a conference call with premiers Thursday came one day after Quebec’s Francois Legault and Ontario’s Doug Ford issued a joint call for a significant increase in the funding Ottawa sends them to help cover mushrooming health care costs.

The federal government has already committed to transferring $19 billion to the provinces to help them cope with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, including some $10 billion for health-related expenses.

But Legault and Ford pointed out that money is a one-time transfer and argued that what the provinces need is sustainable, long-term funding to cover the ballooning costs of new technologies, drugs and an aging population, as well as ongoing pandemic-related costs.

They did not put a price tag on their demand but said a significant increase to the annual transfer is needed.

The federal government will transfer almost $42 billion to provinces and territories for health care in the current fiscal year under an arrangement that sees the transfer increase by at least three per cent each year.

Legault argued that the federal contribution covers only 21 per cent of the cost of delivering universal health care, well down from the 50 per cent share originally agreed to decades ago.

Trudeau has been holding conference calls almost every week with provincial and territorial leaders since the pandemic shut down the country in mid-March.

While those calls — 18 of them as of Thursday — have covered a range of issues, he has now agreed to devote one meeting entirely to the health transfers issue. His office says no date has been set for that call but it is likely to take place before Sept. 23, when Trudeau’s government will issue a throne speech laying out its plan for economic recovery.

Trudeau is to join Ford on Friday for IAMGOLD’s ground-breaking ceremony for their Cote Gold Project in northern Ontario, about 130 kilometres southwest of Timmins.

During construction, the project, which involves international and local First Nations partners, is expected to create more than 1,000 jobs, as well as 450 full-time jobs once completed.

Trudeau is expected to tout the project as a sign that the economy, flattened by COVID-19, is starting to get back on its feet

Parks closed, tickets for partying as Kingston deals with returning students

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press | posted Thursday, Sep 10th, 2020

Massive crowds and parties in an eastern Ontario university town have drawn criticisms from local residents and formal calls for greater co-operation to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Police and city officials in Kingston, Ont., said they’ve had to close a popular pier and beach due to crowding and issue a number of tickets since thousands of students flooded back into the city earlier this month. Local residents said they’ve also taken to the streets to break up parties in recent days.

Jeff Masuda, a Queen’s University professor, spent the early morning hours of Sunday on the long weekend trying to get dozens of Queen’s students — his neighbours — to stop partying and to abide by COVID-19 laws.

It didn’t work.

The maskless group shouted, drank and tossed beer bottles while hanging out outside and ignoring physical distancing guidelines, he said. Some yelled at the two police officers who were called to the area to deal with them, he said, while others took off to continue the night elsewhere.

Masuda walked around his neighbourhood near campus and said there were parties everywhere, including an abandoned hospital site where the same officers had shown up to deal with more revellers.

It didn’t seem like police were doing much, he said.

“There were hundreds of students mixing together across the university district,” he said.

“So now we are left in a position to wait and hope for the best. If COVID came, it’s already spread.”

The region has gone largely unscathed by COVID-19. There is currently one active case of the disease and 112 cases in total since the novel coronavirus made it to Canada. No one has died from the disease.

Kingston has a large student population even during the pandemic. While Queen’s University has limited in-person learning to about 6,600 students, or a quarter of its total population, many students learning online have returned to the city.

That has left Masuda, a professor of kinesiology and health, frustrated with the city’s plan to deal with partying students.

“Whatever plan was put in place, it failed,” Masuda said.

“It was a massive breach of COVID guidelines in the community.”

Mayor Bryan Paterson said the city, the local public health agency, police and Queen’s are doing their best.

Hundreds of Queen’s students flocked to a nearby beach and Gord Downie Pier, which led the city to issue an order to enforce physical distancing through threat of fines, Paterson said.

But police told the mayor there were simply too many people to enforce distancing, so the mayor closed the area through an emergency order on the weekend.

The number of visitors to the area had significantly increased last week after students returned to the city.

“Any other year, that would be OK, we designed and built that area for crowds of people to enjoy, but during a pandemic it’s too much,” Paterson said.

Last month, the mayor vowed to crack down on the massive parties Queen’s students have become known for.

City council approved the use of “administrative monetary penalties” that include fines for shouting, amplified sound coming from speakers and parties.

Bylaw and police officers have been out using the new laws, largely in the university district, officials said.

Since Aug. 28, the city said it has issued 45 such penalties for amplified sound, two for yelling or shouting and one nuisance party charge.

Kingston police said they laid five such charges over the long weekend.

“We’re trying to be proactive to make sure we can curb anything before it lights up here in Kingston, that’s the last thing we want,” Const. Ash Gutheinz said of cases of COVID-19.

Queen’s, for its part, said it’s been sharing all public health protocols with students and was “deeply concerned” to hear of what Masuda witnessed.

“Queen’s takes the safety of our community very seriously,” the university said in a statement. “We want to assure the community that we will continue to impress upon our students the importance of adhering to public health guidelines during these challenging times.”

Masuda said the city and the school should have engaged residents to help.

“We’re willing to put in more effort to do our part as neighbours to help the students help themselves,” he said.

The mayor said he shares the frustration of residents such as Masuda.

“This is a big challenge, I understand that, and if community members are able to help or to reach out to student neighbours, I think that’s actually a great idea,” Paterson said.

Masuda said he has since spoken to his student neighbours.

“They have been contrite and apologetic,” he said.

“With hindsight, I think many of them regret what has happened.”

Ford says Ontario will publicly report school outbreaks

The Canadian Press | posted Thursday, Sep 10th, 2020

Premier Doug Ford promised Wednesday to publicly disclose COVID-19 infection rates in the province’s schools and allow municipalities to reimpose public health restrictions if needed.

The pledge for greater transparency comes as the province begins to reopen its schools over the next two weeks for the first time during the pandemic.

The official Opposition had called on the government to centralize the reporting of COVID-19 outbreaks on schools, and Ford acknowledged on Wednesday that parents should have that information.

“I think it’s so important we report every single case as we did with long-term care, we’ll do the same in school,” he said.

Premier Doug Ford promised Wednesday to publicly disclose COVID-19 infection rates in the province’s schools and allow municipalities to reimpose public health restrictions if needed.

The pledge for greater transparency comes as the province begins to reopen its schools over the next two weeks for the first time during the pandemic.

The official Opposition had called on the government to centralize the reporting of COVID-19 outbreaks on schools, and Ford acknowledged on Wednesday that parents should have that information.

“I think it’s so important we report every single case as we did with long-term care, we’ll do the same in school,” he said.

Ford’s school reopening plan has been criticized by boards, teachers’ unions and some parents for not doing enough to cut class sizes and allow for physical distancing.

The government has repeatedly defended the plan as safe, and stressed that it has been developed in consultation with medical experts.

Toronto’s medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa addressed some of the concerns expressed by parents on Wednesday, saying just because one child contracts the virus doesn’t mean it will lead to widespread infection.

“I truly wish I could say that there won’t be cases, that there won’t be any cases of COVID-19 in our schools. But we know there will be,” de Villa said.

“Everyone, everyone in our community must do their part to help limit the number of cases.”

Dr. de Villa says anyone who tests positive will have to be out of school for at least 14 days. Students will only be allowed back in class when Toronto Public Health deems it safe for them do so.

She says letters are going home to all parents and guardians explaining the protections in place across Toronto’s schools.

“Over the summer, my team worked with local schools to help them plan re-opening. These plans include things we learn from other places, with schools already back. We have examples to follow about what works, and what doesn’t.”

In recent days, cases of the novel coronavirus have been reported in a number of schools in the province.

Ottawa’s French Catholic School Board said six people “associated” with five of its schools, which opened last Thursday, have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

On Tuesday, a school in Oakville said an employee had tested positive for the virus after participating in a staff PA day last week.

Gail McDonald said in a letter to parents that a staff member at Oodenawi Public School tested positive for COVID-19 just days before students returned to class. All staff who had close contact with the individual have been ordered by public health to self-isolate for 14 days.

The school was informed of the positive test on Monday, she added.

Under provincial guidelines, all schools are required to disclose COVID-19 cases to parents while protecting personal privacy.

Ford said he believes the province needs to disclose the numbers and the government is working on a plan to do that along with its regular COVID-19 data.

“I know they’re rolling this out over the next week or two,” he said.

NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the province must take ownership of the reporting rather than leaving disclosures to individual schools or boards.

“The Ford government tried to downplay and hide the growing tragedy in long-term care homes as the virus swept in,” she said in a statement. “We can’t let them make the same mistake with our children.”

Ford also said Thursday that if cities or regional governments want to impose additional restrictions, or close bars or banquet halls to limit the spread of COVID-19, he would support them.

He said they have the power to issue local public health orders, but action at the provincial level would be far too sweeping.

“You’re the mayors, make a decision,” he said. “We’ll support you. But to say that I’m going to close the whole province, it’s unacceptable. I wouldn’t close the whole province when … 16 regions don’t have one single case. It’s not fair to the rest of the province.”

Ford’s comments come after British Columbia ordered all nightclubs and banquet halls to close after COVID-19 cases began to rise in the province.

Earlier Wednesday, Toronto Mayor John Tory said the province could stop bars from serving alcohol at midnight to help limit virus spread in those businesses.

City of Toronto staff said in July they do not have the authority to order establishments to close early and the province would have to issue the order.

When Ontario entered Stage 3 of reopening this summer, Tory and other mayors asked the province to impose restricted serving hours but the Ford government declined.

“We have to watch the numbers. They are going in the wrong direction,” Tory said Wednesday. (The new cases) are occurring in crowd scenes and crowd scenes occur at parties and weddings but they also include bars … and sometimes the only way to deal with that is to have them close earlier.”

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