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COVID-19 spike closes Fort Frances-area schools

Health unit instructs Rainy River District School Board to shutter schools as COVID-19 cases spread in the community
COVID-19 school 3

FORT FRANCES, Ont. – The Northwestern Health Unit has ordered nine Fort Frances-area schools closed as COVID-19 cases spike in the region.

The closures were announced Sunday evening, less than a day before in-class learning was scheduled to resume, following a period of online-only learning dictated by the provincial government in the face of rising cases.

“We apologize for the late notice of this decision, which is a change from the information announced by the Government of Ontario on Thursday and communicated by our Board on Friday,” the Rainy River District School Board said in a statement.

“As there has been a significant increase of COVID-19 activity within a short timeframe and within a certain catchment area, there is a vital need to ensure strong preventative measures are in place.”

Nine Fort Frances-area schools will remain closed until at least Jan. 25, the health unit said, instead continuing to offer online learning.

According to the NWHU, those include St. Mary's School, Our Lady of the Way School - Stratton, J.W. Walker Public School, Robert Moore School, Fort Frances Intermediate School and High School, Crossroads Public School - Devlin, Mine Centre Public School, and Seven Generations Secondary School.

The Rainy River District School Board said its Donald Young School, Sturgeon Creek Alternative Program, and the United Native Friendship Centre Alternative Secondary School Program would also be affected.

Other schools will return to in-person learning Monday, as planned, the school board said.

The health unit's order applies to schools in the municipality of Fort Frances, as well as those where most staff are residents of the town, and includes an exception for students with special education needs as required.

"It is understood that this is a significant disruption to families in Fort Frances, but the numbers seen this weekend in the community can’t be ignored," the health unit said Sunday. "The risk of COVID-19 is very real, there is evidence of community transmission, and keeping these schools in virtual learning at this time can reduce the risk of further infections."

The health unit announced a record single-day count of 20 new cases Saturday, weeks after it began warning of alarming increases. The health unit's Rainy River region, which includes Fort Frances, accounted for 18 of those - though the health unit did not specify how many were located in Fort Frances itself.

The virus had already spread to the Rainycrest long-term care home and La Verendrye Hospital in the town of roughly 7,400.