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Testing in Ontario still well below capacity, latest numbers show; Ottawa promises $75 million for off-reserve Indigenous services



The latest novel coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Thursday (this file will be updated throughout the day). Web links to longer stories if available.

11:40 a.m.: As stores slowly re-opened in Ontario, Toronto Star reporter Laura Armstrong went for a stroll in her neighbourhood to see if it resembled anything like ‘normal.’ She went to places like Indigo, H&M and Zara. It was not the same. Here’s her story.

11:25 a.m.: Ontario’s regional health units are reporting another 449 COVID-19 cases and 48 deaths in the last 24 hours, according to the Star’s latest count.

As of 11 a.m. Thursday, the health units had reported a total of 25,411 confirmed and probable cases, including 2,067 deaths.

The total of 449 new confirmed and probable cases reported since the same time Wednesday morning was once again up considerably from recent averages.

The number of new cases reported each day had been on a downward trend since hitting a peak of more than 700 in late April. However, the average has begun to rise again after flattening out to about 360 cases per day last week.

The jump in cases also included a large increase of 263 new cases in Toronto reported Wednesday evening, the second consecutive day the city hit that total. Combined, the 526 cases reported between Monday and Wednesday evenings were the most in any 48 hours in the city since mid-April.

Meanwhile, the 48 fatal cases reported in the province since Wednesday morning were also well above recent trends. Nevertheless, the rate of deaths has fallen considerably since peaking at more than 90 deaths in a day earlier this month, about two weeks after the peak in the daily case totals.

Earlier Thursday, the province once again reported the testing labs had completed far fewer tests than its target of 16,000 a day. In its daily data release, the province said the labs had completed just 10,506 tests the previous day, the fourth consecutive day below the target. The province says the labs have the capacity to complete about 20,000 tests daily; last week they completed as many as 18,354 in a day.

Because many health units publish tallies to their websites before reporting to Public Health Ontario, the Star’s count is more current than the data the province puts out each morning.

The province also reported 984 patients are now hospitalized with COVID-19, including 155 in intensive care, of whom 117 are on a ventilator — numbers that have fluctuated up and down in recent weeks. The province also says more than 18,500 patients who have tested positive for the coronavirus have now recovered from the disease — about three-quarters of the total infected.

The province says its data is accurate to 4 p.m. the previous day. The province also cautions its latest count of total deaths — 1,993 — may be incomplete or out of date due to delays in the reporting system, saying that in the event of a discrepancy, “data reported by (the health units) should be considered the most up to date.”

The Star’s count includes some patients reported as “probable” COVID-19 cases, meaning they have symptoms and contacts or travel history that indicate they very likely have the disease, but have not yet received a positive lab test.

11:20 a.m.: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government is sending $75 million to organizations that help Indigenous people living in urban areas and off reserves.

The government had previously promised $15 million in funding for services such as counselling, health care, food and supportive housing.

More than a million Indigenous people live in cities or off reserves, Trudeau says, and they deserve good services that are culturally appropriate.

11:05 a.m.: Trudeau is expected to address reporters at his daily briefing. A livestream of his news conference will be available at

11:02 a.m.: A prominent cross-border lobby group wants Canada and the United States to join forces for an integrated North American approach to the new post-pandemic global economy.

The Washington-based Canadian American Business Association is building a new campaign to encourage a united economic front as the two countries battle back from the impact of COVID-19.

The goal of the “North American Rebound” campaign, expected to launch later today, is to promote collaborative efforts to secure personal protective equipment, replenish and maintain medical stockpiles and defend critical cross-border supply chains.

10:59 a.m.: Environment Canada research scientists say the COVID-19-induced economic slowdown is leading to cleaner air in many Canadian cities.

Chris McLinden and Debora Griffin say remote satellite sensors show significant drops in the nitrogen dioxide pollution hovering above many major cities like Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton.

McLinden says on average Canada’s big cities have seen air pollution fall by about one-third.

10:45 a.m. (updated): Ontario is reporting that it only used half its COVID-19 lab testing capacity Wednesday, processing 10,506 tests. Up from about 7,400 Tuesday and more than 5,000 Monday, fuelling concerns the province is not testing anywhere near enough.

10 a.m.: Cape Town has become the centre of the COVID-19 outbreak in South Africa and one of Africa’s hot spots.

The popular tourist destination at the southern tip of Africa had more than 12,000 confirmed cases as of Thursday, representing 63 per cent of South Africa’s 19,000 cases and about 10 per cent of Africa’s 95,000 cases.

Gauteng province containing Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, and the capital, Pretoria, had been expected to be the country’s epicenter with its population density and poverty levels, but Cape Town defied predictions with high levels of community transmission.

9:25 a.m.: The number of COVID-19 cases surpassed the five million mark overnight, according to the John Hopkins University tally of cases.

The number of cases topped one million on April 2 and has since increased by a million almost bi-weekly. Infections surpassed the four million mark on May 9.

The U.S. has the most number of infections at more than 1.5 million and deaths at 93,439.

Russia has the second-highest number of infections at 317,554 followed by Brazil with 291,579. The second-highest tally of deaths is 35,786 in the U.K. followed by 32,330 in Italy.

A total of 81,575 cases has been reported in Canada, with 6,150 deaths.

9:20 a.m.: Victoria’s Secret plans to permanently close approximately 250 stores in the U.S. and Canada in 2020, its parent company L Brands has announced.

L Brands also plans to permanently close 50 Bath & Body Works stores in the U.S. and one in Canada, according to information the company posted online as part of its quarterly earnings. L Brands will discuss its earnings with analysts Thursday morning.

L Brands’ total company sales declined 37% in the quarter that ended May 2. Almost all of the company’s stores have been closed since March 17 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news comes a day after Pier 1 Imports announced plans to shutter all its remaining stores and two days after J.C. Penney unveiled it will close 242 stores as part of its bankruptcy.

Victoria’s Secret has 1,091 stores in the U.S. and Canada with 909 U.S. Victoria’s Secret stores and 144 Pink stores. The company says it will close 235 U.S. Victoria’s Secret and three Pink stores. It also plans to close 13 of its 38 stores in Canada.

9:15 a.m.: Officials are now urging people to go to COVID-19 assessment centres for testing even if they have mild symptoms of the disease — from loss of taste or smell to pink eye — as more of Ontario’s economy starts to reopen.

This comes on the heels of a big drop in testing over the long weekend, with labs using one-third of their capacity, Tuesday, and processing only 7,382 tests. That’s down from 17,768 at the end of last week.

Read the story from the Star’s May Warren.

8 a.m.: A poll suggests that while Canadians want to get back to organized sports and group physical activities post-pandemic, it may take time for some to feel comfortable doing so.

Still, a majority believes that it’s important for Canadians to play organized sports when distancing restrictions are lifted because of the impact they have on mental and physical health.

The Abacus Data poll showed some one in four Canadian adults (27 per cent) regularly took part in an organized sport or group physical activity before the pandemic. As one might expect, younger Canadians were much more likely to take part — with 43 per cent of those aged 18 to 29 and 32 per cent of those aged 30 to 44 saying they played an organized sport or took part in a group physical activity before the pandemic.

Respondents reported some hesitation to return to organized sports, but most would feel comfortable doing so within a few months.

7:30 a.m.: The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the need for more public toilets in communities across Canada, particularly as softening restrictions encourage people to spend more time outside their homes, advocates and experts say.

The health crisis is drawing broader attention to an issue that has long been a barrier for racialized, trans and disabled people, as well those dealing with homelessness or poverty, the experts say.

Scarce access to washrooms was recently raised as a hurdle for essential workers, such as transit and truck drivers who could no longer rely on coffee shops and other businesses once those were ordered closed.

7:24 a.m.: Republican political operatives are recruiting “extremely pro-Trump” doctors to go on television to prescribe reviving the U.S. economy as quickly as possible, without waiting to meet safety benchmarks proposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

The plan was discussed in a May 11 conference call with a senior staffer for the Trump reelection campaign organized by CNP Action, an affiliate of the GOP-aligned Council for National Policy. A leaked recording of the hourlong call was provided to The Associated Press by the Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive watchdog group.

CNP Action is part of the Save Our Country Coalition, an alliance of conservative think tanks and political committees formed in late April to end state lockdowns implemented in response to the pandemic. Other members of the coalition include the FreedomWorks Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council and Tea Party Patriots.

A resurgent economy is seen as critical to boosting President Donald Trump’s reelection hopes and has become a growing focus of the White House coronavirus task force led by Vice-President Mike Pence.

Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign communications director, confirmed to AP that an effort to recruit doctors to publicly support the president is underway, but declined to say when the initiative would be rolled out.

7:11 a.m. Oxfam International, one of the world’s leading aid agencies, is to severely curtail its work because of the financial strain caused by the coronavirus pandemic, including the closure of operations in 18 countries at the potential cost of more than 2,000 jobs.

The organization, which currently operates in 66 countries and whose global work is co-ordinated via 20 affiliate offices around the world, said in a statement late Wednesday that it has had to accelerate changes as a result of the pandemic.

Countries it will be exiting include Afghanistan, Egypt, Rwanda, Sudan and Tanzania. It said the changes will affect around 1,450 out of nearly 5,000 program staff and 700 out of nearly 1,900 partner organizations.

Following the changes, it will retain a physical presence in 48 countries, six of which it will explore as new independent affiliate members, including Indonesia and Kenya.

7:11 a.m. The coronavirus has infected more than 10,000 health care workers in hard-hit Iran, news outlets reported Thursday.

The report carried by semiofficial news agencies, including ISNA, cited Deputy Health Minister Qassem Janbabaei, who did not elaborate. However, reports earlier in the week put the number of infected health care workers at only 800. Iran says more than 100 of those workers have died.

Iran on Thursday put the number of dead from the virus at 7,249, or 66 more than Wednesday. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said there were more than 129,000 confirmed cases of the virus, including 2,392 more than Wednesday.

Iran has the highest number of casualties from the disease in the region.

4:01 a.m.: The federal government is to provide more financial support to help off-reserve Indigenous People weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

The additional funding expected today comes amid criticism that the Trudeau government has largely ignored the plight of thousands of Indigenous people who live off-reserve and in urban centres.

Many of them were already among Canada’s most vulnerable before the pandemic hit in mid-March — struggling with poverty, homelessness, food insecurity and mental health and addiction issues.

The Congress of Aboriginal People, which represents some 90,000 off-reserve and non-status Indigenous people, has gone to court over what it says is the “inadequate and discriminatory” funding it has received compared to other Indigenous groups.

In mid-March, the government created the $305-million Indigenous Community Support Fund, most of which went to organizations representing First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities to help them prepare for and cope with the pandemic.

Only $15 million of that was allotted for off-reserve organizations, even though they serve more than half of Canada’s Indigenous population, and of that, CAP, which is seeking $16 million, received just $250,000.

“The amount CAP has received for our constituents across Canada is a slap in the face,” the group’s national chief, Robert Bertrand, told a Commons committee last week.

The additional funding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is to announce today is expected to go to organizations that serve the off-reserve Indigenous population, such as the National Association of Friendship Centres.

The association says it has been delivering food, dealing with increased domestic violence, caring for elders and helping off-reserve Indigenous people find safe shelter and transportation and apply for emergency aid benefits, despite little financial help from Ottawa.

4:01 a.m.: Face masks are dangerous to the health of some Canadians and problematic for some others.

In recommending people wear masks in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, national chief public health officer Theresa Tam has also warned against judging those who can’t wear them.

“Be very aware of those with different types of cognitive, intellectual disabilities, those who are hearing impaired and others,” Dr. Tam said.

“Don’t assume that someone who isn’t wearing a mask or is wearing something different doesn’t have an actual reason for it.”

Asthma Canada president and CEO Vanessa Foran said simply wearing a mask could create risk of an asthma attack.

She said if a mask inhibits the ability of someone to breathe in any way, they recommend not wearing one.

Foran suggests asthmatics wear a mask in their home for 20 minutes to test their comfort level before venturing out, and also to head out in cooler weather.

“Wearing masks means breathing hot and humid air, so that can trigger asthma symptoms,” she said.

“We say if they cannot wear a mask, they must ensure they’re maintaining physical distancing and practising good hand hygiene.”

4:01 a.m.: Provinces have been releasing plans for easing restrictions that were put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Here is what some of the provinces have announced so far:

Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland and Labrador lifted some of the public health restrictions imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19 on May 11.

The province has entered “alert level four” in its five-level reopening plan, allowing some businesses such as law firms and other professional services to reopen along with regulated child-care centres, with some restrictions.

Small gatherings for funerals, burials and weddings are also permitted with a limit of 10 people following physical distancing rules.

Municipal parks, golf courses and driving ranges can open and recreational hunting and fishing are permitted. Officials are reminding people that the new rules do not allow for parties or other social gatherings.

The province is loosening restrictions in a series of “alert levels” descending from five. The current alert level is to remain in place for at least 28 days.

At Level 3, private health clinics, such as optometrists and dentists, are to be permitted to open, as well as medium-risk businesses such as clothing stores and hair salons.

At Level 2, some small gatherings will be allowed, and businesses with performance spaces and gyms are to reopen.

Level 1 would represent “the new normal.”

Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil has announced there will be no return to school this year. He also says a decision on whether daycares will reopen will be made by June 8. Nova Scotia has eased some public health restrictions, however, directives around physical distancing and social gatherings remain in place.

Trails and provincial and municipal parks can now reopen along with garden centres, nurseries and similar businesses, but playground equipment is still off limits.

Public beaches also reopened along with outdoor activities like archery, horseback riding, golf, paddling, boating and tennis, with the proviso that social distancing and hygiene be maintained.

Sport fishing is permitted and people can attend boating, yacht or sailing clubs for the purpose of preparing boats for use. Drive-in religious services are now allowed, if people stay in their cars, park two metres apart and there are no interactions between people.

The government announced the loosening of some restrictions and introduced a “family bubble” policy, allowing two immediate family households to come together without physical distancing.

The province is following federal health guidelines and the chief medical officer of health has stressed that the number of new COVID-19 cases caused by community transmission must drop to few or no cases for at least two weeks — ideally 28 days — before an economic recovery plan is implemented.

Prince Edward Island

P.E.I. is accelerating its Renew PEI Together plan. Phase two of the plan will still begin May 22 as scheduled, but the third phase will now begin June 1 instead of June 12.

Phase three will allow gatherings of up to 15 people indoors and 20 people outdoors, organized recreational activities and the opening of child-care centres and in-room dining. Members of a household can currently gather indoors with up to five other people.

Other precautions, such as physical distancing remain in place.

Screening also continues at points of entry into the province and all people coming into P.E.I. are required to isolate for 14 days. Priority non-urgent surgeries and select health-service providers, including physiotherapists, optometrists and chiropractors, resumed on May 1.

The Renew P.E.I. Together plan also allows outdoor gatherings and noncontact outdoor recreational activities of no more than five individuals from different households.

New Brunswick

New Brunswick’s education minister said licensed daycares can begin reopening May 19. Children won’t have to wear masks or maintain physical distancing, but they will be in small groups.

Anyone who has travelled outside of New Brunswick will not be allowed to visit early learning and child-care facilities for 14 days.

Meanwhile, the province has allowed more businesses and services to reopen.

Retail businesses, offices, restaurants, libraries, museums and seasonal campgrounds can do so under certain conditions. Those include having an operational plan that explains how they are meeting public health guidelines including physical distancing, hand hygiene and allowing staff to remain home when ill.

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Outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people are also allowed if physical distancing is respected.

The resumption of elective surgeries is also part of the province’s phase two of its reopening plan.

The third phase will allow regular church services, dentistry work and the reopening of fitness centres.

The final phase, which will probably come only after a vaccine is available, will include large gatherings.

Phase one, which started on April 24, allowed limited play on golf courses as well as fishing and hunting.

Post-secondary students were allowed to return if it was deemed safe by the school, and outdoor church services were again permitted, providing people remain in their vehicles and are two metres apart.


Quebec reopened retail stores outside Montreal on May 11.

Lottery terminals are also reopening after being shut down on March 20 with sales moving to online only.

Quebec’s construction and manufacturing industries have resumed operations with limits on the number of employees who can work per shift. Elementary schools and daycares outside Montreal reopened on May 11, but high schools, junior colleges and universities will stay closed until September.

Elementary schools in the greater Montreal area will remain closed until late August.

Premier François Legault says public health conditions haven’t been met in the area hardest hit by the coronavirus, so Montreal daycares will also remain closed until at least June 1.

Officials haven’t made a firm decision about retail businesses, which are scheduled to reopen May 25.

Meanwhile, checkpoints set up to slow the spread of COVID-19 came down on May 18 in various parts of Quebec, including between Gatineau and Ottawa.


Ontario began its first stage of reopening May 19 including lifting restrictions on retail stores and surgeries.

The province says workplaces can begin to reopen but working from home should continue as much as possible.

All construction can resume, and limits will be lifted on maintenance, repair and property management services, such as cleaning, painting and pool maintenance.

Most retail stores that have a street entrance can reopen with physical distancing restrictions, such as limits on the number of customers in a store and providing curbside pickup and delivery.

Golf courses can reopen though clubhouses can only open for washrooms and takeout food. Marinas, boat clubs and public boat launches can also open, as can private parks and campgrounds for trailers and RVs whose owners have a full season contract, and businesses that board animals.

Other businesses and services included in the stage one reopening include regular veterinary appointments, pet grooming, pet sitting and pet training; libraries for pickup or deliveries; and housekeepers and babysitters.

Premier Doug Ford announced that Ontario schools will stay closed for the rest of the school year.


The Saskatchewan government’s five-phase plan to reopen its economy started May 11 with dentists, optometrists and other health professionals allowed to resume services. Phase 1 also includes reopened golf courses and campgrounds.

Phase 2 will give the green light to retail businesses and salons.

Restaurants and gyms could open in Phase 3, but with limited capacity.

Phase 4 could see arenas, swimming pools and playgrounds opening.

In Phase 5, the province would consider lifting restrictions on the size of public gatherings.


The Manitoba government has lifted its one-month limit on people’s prescription drug supplies, allowing people to again get prescriptions filled or refilled for 90 days.

Its health offices, including dentists, chiropractors and physiotherapists can also reopen. Retail businesses can reopen at half occupancy providing they ensure physical spacing.

Restaurants can reopen patios and walk-up service.

Museums and libraries can also reopen, but with occupancy limited to 50 per cent.

Playgrounds, golf courses and tennis courts reopened as well, along with parks and campgrounds.

Starting Friday, the province will allow groups of up to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.

The province also plans to ease a ban on people visiting loved ones in personal care homes. By the end of next week, homes will be allowed to offer limited, outdoor visits with a maximum of two guests per resident.

Visitors will be screened on their arrival and will have to continue to practice physical distancing.

A second phase is to begin no earlier than June 1. That’s when restaurants would be allowed to open indoor dining areas and noncontact children’s sports would resume.

Mass gatherings such as concerts and major sporting events will not be considered before September. Meanwhile, Manitoba has extended a province-wide state of emergency until mid-June, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.


Alberta has increased the limit for outdoor gatherings to 50 people — up from 15.

The province allowed stores, restaurants, daycares and hair salons to reopen across much of the province on May 14. But hair salons and restaurant dining rooms can’t reopen in Calgary and Brooks until May 25.

Restaurants can only open at half capacity.

Premier Jason Kenney says if the first stage of reopening goes well, the next phase — which includes movie theatres and spas — could go ahead on June 19.

Alberta allowed some scheduled, non-urgent surgeries to start on May 11.

Service provided by dentists, physiotherapists and other medical professionals are also permitted. Golf courses reopened May 2, though pro shops and clubhouses remain shuttered.

British Columbia

The provincial government allowed a partial reopening of the B.C. economy starting May 19.

The reopening plans are contingent on organizations and businesses having plans that follow provincial guidelines to control the spread of COVID-19. Hotels, resorts and parks will follow in June.

Parents in B.C. will be given the choice of allowing their children to return to class on a part-time basis in June. The government says its goal is for the return of full-time classes in September, if it’s safe.

Under the part-time plan, for kindergarten to Grade 5, most students will go to school half time, while grades 6 to 12 will go about one day a week. A mix of online and classroom post-secondary education is planned for September.

Conventions, large concerts, international tourism and professional sports with a live audience will not be allowed to resume until either a vaccine is widely available, community immunity has been reached, or effective treatment can be provided for the disease.

Northwest Territories

The Northwest Territories announced on May 12 a reopening plan that contains three phases, but the government didn’t say when it would be implemented.

The plan includes more gatherings and the possible reopening of some schools and businesses. However, the territory’s borders remain closed indefinitely to non-residents and non-essential workers.

There are several requirements that must be met before any measures are relaxed: there must be no evidence of community spread until today; travel entry points in the territory are strong and secure; risks are reduced from workers coming into the territory; and expanded community testing is available.


The territory’s reopening plan outlines five phases including a period after a vaccine is available.

The plan’s “restart” phase began May 15, with businesses that were ordered to close allowed to reopen as long as they submit an operational plan.

Two households of up to 10 people in total are also able to interact with each other as part of a “household bubble.”

But bars and restaurants that offer dine-in services won’t be allowed to reopen until the chief medical officer of health lifts restrictions.

The territory’s borders also remain closed but residents are allowed to travel throughout Yukon more easily.

12:08 a.m.: Strong concern about a second wave of coronavirus infections in the U.S. is reinforcing widespread opposition among Americans to reopening public places, a new poll finds, even as many state leaders step up efforts to return to life before the pandemic.

Yet support for public health restrictions imposed to control the virus’s spread is no longer overwhelming. It has been eroded over the past month by a widening partisan divide, with Democrats more cautious and Republicans less anxious as President Donald Trump urges states to “open up our country,” according to the new survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The poll finds that 83 per cent of Americans are at least somewhat concerned that lifting restrictions in their area will lead to additional infections, with 54 per cent saying they are very or extremely concerned that such steps will result in a spike of COVID-19 cases.

Wednesday 7:41 p.m.: A staff member at the Peter D. Clark long-term-care home in Ottawa has died of COVID-19.

“My sincere condolences to their family, friends, and colleagues,” Mayor Jim Watson wrote on Twitter. “I want to thank all our front-line staff for their continued efforts to keep some of the most vulnerable residents safe and healthy during these challenging times.”

The name of the employee was not released by the city.

A second resident at the city-run home was reported to have died from COVID-19 on Monday. Fourteen employees and 19 residents that have tested positive for the virus.

Wednesday 5:41 p.m.: Ontario’s regional health units are now reporting more than 25,000 COVID-19 cases following a second consecutive day of case totals that suggest a recent declining trend may be reversing, according to the Star’s latest count.

As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, the health units had reported a total of 25,364 confirmed and probable cases, including 2,065 deaths.

The total of 435 new confirmed and probable cases reported since the same time Tuesday evening was down more than 100 from the previous day’s total, but still up considerably from recent averages.

The number of new cases reported each day had been on a downward trend since hitting a peak of more than 700 in late April. However, the trend in the daily average has begun to rise again after flattening out to an average of about 360 cases per day last week.

The jump in cases reported Wednesday also included a large increase of 263 new cases in Toronto, the second consecutive day the city hit that total. Combined, the 526 cases reported in Toronto since Monday evening were the most in any 48-hour period since mid-April.

Meanwhile, the 47 fatalities reported in the province since Tuesday evening were also well above recent trends. Nevertheless, the death rate has fallen considerably since peaking at more than 90 deaths in a day earlier this month, about two weeks after the peak in the daily case totals.

Earlier Wednesday, the province once again reported the testing labs had completed far fewer tests than its target of 16,000 a day. In its daily data release, the province said the labs had completed just 7,382 tests the previous day, the second in a row after the long weekend to see very few tests completed.

Because many health units publish tallies to their websites before reporting to Public Health Ontario, the Star’s count is more current than the data the province puts out each morning.

The province also reported 991 patients are now hospitalized with COVID-19, including 160 in intensive care, of whom 120 are on a ventilator. The province also says more than 18,000 patients who have tested positive for the coronavirus have now recovered from the disease.

The province says its data is accurate to 4 p.m. the previous day. The province also cautions its latest count of total deaths — 1,962 — may be incomplete or out of date due to delays in the reporting system, saying that in the event of a discrepancy, data reported by the health units should be considered the most up to date.

The Star’s count includes some patients reported as “probable” COVID-19 cases, meaning they have symptoms and contacts or travel history that indicate they very likely have the disease, but have not yet received a positive result from a lab test.

Click here to read more of Wednesday’s coverage.

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LaGrange unveils changes to spur more charter schools, unfunded homeschooling option




Alberta’s education minister, Adriana LaGrange, says she’s making good on an election promise to safeguard parent choice in education. 

On Thursday afternoon, LaGrange introduced Bill 15, the Choice in Education Act.

She said this strengthens the idea that parents have the right to choose the type of education their children receive, through amendments to the Education Act.

Premier Jason Kenney said this proposed legislation is important because there continues to be special interest groups and political parties in Alberta who “undermine” this right.

“This legislation won’t let them do so in the future,” he said. 

“This legislation enshrines the belief of Albertans in freedom, diversity, pluralism and choice as well as parental responsibility. Because we believe that parents know better than politicians or bureaucrats about what’s in the best interests of their kids.”

LaGrange said that when she was in “election mode,” something she heard at doors across the province was that parents really valued the choices that they had in Alberta, and they wanted it to be something that was highlighted.

“That’s how it became a platform commitment that we would be bringing forth a piece of legislation that would strengthen that.”

‘Unsupervised, non-funded’

Among the proposed changes, Bill 15 would amend the home education programs section of the Education Act, allowing for “unsupervised notification-only, non-funded home education program,” meaning those choosing that option would no longer need to be supervised by an Alberta school board.

Parents who pick this option would have to notify the ministry annually of their intention to home school their kids, and they would have to submit an education plan that shows the ministry that the student would have the opportunity to achieve appropriate learning outcomes.

“We heard very loudly from that community that they wanted an option that was unsupervised, notification only, non-funded home education programs,” she said.

But LaGrange said that doesn’t mean they get a carte blanche.

“[The plan] is not there to be approved, but on the other hand, we would also have that dialogue with the parents to ensure proper oversight and the proper outcomes would be looked at,” she said. 

The minister said at home school programs don’t necessarily all adhere to the Alberta Education guide or program of studies, but if they were adhering to the Alberta program of studies, then they would have to follow all of the required course content material as well as the examinations for those particular programs.

“There are home school parents and authorities that choose other programs from other areas, and then they have different outcomes as well as different assessments that they follow,” said LaGrange.

She said that when parents choose not to follow the Alberta program of studies, they are made aware that their children will not receive an Alberta diploma.

Charter schools applications 

The bill also proposes changes to how charter schools can be established. 

Current laws say that those wishing to establish a charter school have to go to the school board in the area they want the school to be in and request that the board establish an alternative program before considering the charter application. 

Under the proposed changes, those wishing to establish a charter school would go directly to the minister. 

It would then be up to the education ministry to reach out to all school divisions in that area and ensure that proper consultation takes place, to find out if a program similar to the proposal is already in place, has been considered or is waiting to be considered by the public school division.

“It takes a little bit of the angst out of the situation in terms of individuals going to the actual boards themselves and having conversations about it, whereas the department can do this and it eliminates one of the steps,” said LaGrange.

Despite not one application for a charter school since Kenney took office, he said his hope is that these changes encourage more people to consider establishing charter schools to meet public demand.

“The waiting list for charter schools is unacceptably long. Last I heard, there were 14,000 students provincewide waiting for a position in a charter school,” he said.

He said that since the creation of charter schools in Alberta in the mid-1990s, there’s been a statutory requirement that they take kids from all backgrounds.

“It’s not like independent schools, though — there’s not a screening process. They are inclusive schools and there are children from all different social and economic backgrounds who attend charter schools, which have great outcomes. And so that’s exactly why we hope to see a growing number of charter schools to respond to the demand that exists.”

‘Valued and integral’

In addition to these changes, there are also a number of smaller changes, including two additions to the preamble — the introductory part of the statute.

The first would add a new whereas statement to the act: “whereas parents have the a priori right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” — which is also the language used in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The second addition recognizes all of Alberta’s current choices in education as “valued and as integral” in providing choice in education to students and parents.

Included on this list are public schools, separate schools, Francophone schools, private schools, charter schools, early childhood services programs and home education programs.

A few of the changes proposed to the Education Act. (Alberta Education)

No changes to private school funding

A similar new statement in the bill would recognize private schools as “being important in providing parents and students with choice in education.”

“Private or independent schools have played a very important role in choice for parents in this province and I do believe that they felt that they were not valued but threatened under the previous government,” said LaGrange.

LaGrange said the proposed changes would not lead to any financial gain for independent schools, and that their funding formula would remain the same.

“They still only receive 70 per cent funding and they do not receive any capital funding,” she said. 

“This is strictly true to give them the comfort and to reinforce what we heard from parents … that they value the choice and that they see independent schools as a very real choice that they want to make for their children.”

Administrative changes

Other administrative changes include amendments to the Education Act so it specifically references the ability to establish vocational charter schools. Another change would exclude charter school operators from being subject to the Board Procedures Regulation as they are actually considered societies or companies registered under the Companies Act.

The minister said Alberta Education engaged with several groups through in-person meetings and webinars to find out what they would like to see as part of the Choice in Education Act. Consultations included the education system partners, interest groups and students through the Summer Student Advisory Panel and the minister’s Youth Council.

Alberta Education also held a month-long online public survey offered in English and French. It generated more than 50,000 complete responses.

The survey found that 61.6 per cent of those responding were satisfied with the amount of educational choice in Alberta, and 59.1 per cent were satisfied with the information available about school choice.

The minister said an additional 2,357 surveys arrived via email from people associated with Support Our Schools, a public education advocacy interest group.

These completed surveys were “very similar,” contained no demographic information, and answered two questions with the exact same answers, she said.

LaGrange says a special interests group, Support Our Students Alberta, attempted to ‘hijack’ the survey by submitting 2,357 responses that were virtually the same. (CBC)

The ministry said it analyzed these surveys separately as it did not want to impact the demographic components of the overall analysis, as it’s important to show how people experience education differently in Alberta.

“When you have a special interest group that wants to hijack the survey, I found that a little disconcerting,” said LaGrange.

“I find it strange that as an advocacy group they have never reached out to myself or my department for a meeting or to have a conversation, and I would welcome that opportunity.”

Bill 15 will be debated and voted on in the coming weeks.

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Northern students flocking online to continue postsecondary studies




As COVID-19 keeps post-secondary students out of the classroom, Contact North is seeing increased demand for online learning, and that’s only expected to grow.

“No question that there is a big, big, big uptake in online learning – full stop,” said Maxim Jean-Louis, Contact North’s president and CEO.

“And that’s from all categories of people, whether they are students who are just finishing high school, whether they are adults, whether they are people who are already in the system who are already taking courses or programs.”

Created by the provincial government in 1986, Contact North administers online learning on behalf of Ontario’s colleges, universities, Indigenous learning centres, and training institutes.

By studying online, learners in rural, remote and underserviced communities can still earn an education while remaining in their home communities, making post-secondary education more feasible for many.

Jean-Louis said there are roughly 15,000 students currently enrolled in online courses through Contact North.

The results of an early-April survey of 1,555 students indicates that online learning is a trend that’s expected to continue.

Fifty-three per cent of respondents are planning to take more online courses in the future, while 61 per cent said they weren’t experiencing challenges continuing their education as a result of COVID-19.

“For them, it’s business as usual because they were already taking it online, so they’re just going to take more, because there are more courses available online now,” Jean-Louis said.

The most popular areas of study include health support services (nursing, personal support worker, social work), business courses, and the trades.

When it comes to courses that require students to complete a practical component, instructors are adapting to restrictions introduced by the pandemic.

For example, trades students can complete their theoretical component online, and then professors will arrange for them to come in at staggered times during the week to work on the practical component.

It allows students to meet their course requirements while still maintaining physical distancing. 

“The colleges and universities are being very, very insightful and innovative in finding ways to help the students’ access,” Jean-Louis said. “That’s what we are observing all across Northern Ontario.”

Even before COVID-19 hit, he said, Ontario was leading Canada in the sheer volume of online courses available – there are 1,000 full programs and another 10,000 courses available online.

But transitioning to online learning isn’t as simple as just connecting to the internet and turning on a device.

Faculty need to be trained and supported in making the switch to a new teaching method, and students themselves have to be able to adapt to a new way of learning, Jean-Louis said.

“It’s a mistake to think that because all of our young Millennials are very good at using their cell phones that they are actually very good automatically at using technology to learn,” Jean-Louis said. “It doesn’t necessarily transfer.”

Students learn from both their educators and their peers, and so losing the social interaction gleaned from in-person communication can be an adjustment, he said.

“So we have to figure out a way online to provide both aspects,” Jean-Louis said. “You learn as much from your fellow students as you learn from the faculty sometimes.”

Learning online also requires a fair amount of discipline and focus, he added. Some courses allow students to log in any time of the day to complete coursework, while others are scheduled to offer live instruction at specific times, as with traditional classes.

It’s up the student to make sure they tune in as required.

But after decades of offering online learning, Northern Ontario has an advantage over other jurisdictions that are just now getting into distance education, Jean-Louis said.

Even students in the most remote or fly-in Indigenous communities, like Moosonee or Attawapiskat, have been able to get an education, without ever leaving home to do it.

“Because of the huge distances and the sparse population, they’ve been doing online for decades,” he noted. “So for them… you are not new at this game at all. You’ve had to do it because it was the only choice in many ways to reach residents who were isolated.”

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‘Invisible disability’: Masks making it harder to communicate, deaf and hard of hearing say




Going to get groceries these days is the source of anxiety for many people during the pandemic — the lineups, the narrow aisles, the touching of produce. But when you’re hard of hearing or deaf, the task can be exponentially more difficult.

“The masks that everyone is wearing right now are quite the barrier,” said Leah Riddell, community outreach director for the Ontario Cultural Society of the Deaf.

Riddell, speaking through a sign language interpreter, said masks prevent people from being able to read lips or facial expressions.

“For those wearing masks, I’m not sure if they’re talking to me or if they’re talking to somebody else. So there’s a lot of assumptions. And if you ask somebody to repeat they can be very dismissive,” said Riddell.

“We have to go out, we have to survive. We have to work. So there are a lot of members within the community that are quite anxious and quite concerned when they need to go out.”

Leah Riddell is the community outreach director for the Ontario Cultural Society of the Deaf. The society works to advance the education and awareness of deaf culture. (Submitted)

With more and more businesses opening their doors, and Canada’s top health official now officially recommending the use of face coverings in public, the task of communicating has become increasingly difficult for some who are deaf or hard of hearing.

While options such as clear masks have emerged in some places, they are not widely available or worn, so people who are deaf or hard of hearing and are struggling to communicate now are asking for patience and understanding from the public.

Different levels of hearing

The widespread use of masks has affected a range of people with different levels of hearing ability.

Craig Lund, a Toronto-based marketing head hunter, has been hard of hearing since he was three. He is deaf in his right ear, has about 30 per cent hearing in his left ear and wears a hearing aid.

“What the pandemic has shown is that I rely on reading lips a lot more than I realized,” said Lund.

Craig Lund, who uses a hearing aid, says since the pandemic started he’s realized how much he relies on lipreading to understand people. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

“Masks came along and all of a sudden I started to struggle a whole lot with understanding what was going on.”

Lund described a few instances at the grocery store where he’s been unable to understand what someone is saying.

“There’s a lot of anxiousness when people are having conversations — they want you to move along quickly. And people start to get irritated really quickly too,” said Lund.

For those who are deaf, masks present an additional challenge: about 70 per cent of  American Sign Language (ASL), involves facial expressions and body movements, and only 30 per cent comes from hand signs, said Riddell.

“Facial expressions are quite critical in the language, and with the masks it’s a barrier that prevents communication from happening because half the face is covered,” she said.

Seventy per cent of American Sign Language relies on the face and the body and only 30 per cent comes from hand shapes and signs, according to Leah Riddell. (CBC)

Until recently, the struggles have been at grocery stores.

“Now that things are starting to slowly reopen we’re noticing it even more. There are more concerns, more anxiousness, about, ‘Are they going to understand, are we going to be able to do this?'” said Riddell.

Masks plus physical distancing

Another challenge is just how much masks muffle the sound of a voice.

“There have already been some studies to show that general surgical medical masks … may reduce the way someone perceives sound by three to four decibels (DB),” said Rex Banks, an audiologist and director of hearing health care at Canadian Hearing Services, adding that can make someone’s voice 25 to 30 per cent softer.

Masks make it harder to perceive sound. Combined with physical distancing, they can make communication a challenge for the deaf and hard of hearing. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Physical distancing makes the problem even worse.

“So you have the level of speech that’s decreased and then also when you put the distance in there — so trying to stand maybe six feet away from each other — who knows at this point how much of the sound is actually reaching the person,” he said.

Banks said there are a number of speech-to-text apps and other tools that he’s advising people to use during this time. Canadian Hearing Services has also been conducting a series of webinars that offer resources for people who are having challenges right now.

Clear masks

In recent weeks, there’s been a popularization of clear masks intended to help those who are hard of hearing communicate. 

Meredith Brookings, owner of Couture Alterations in Whitby, Ont, pivoted to manufacturing PPE after the pandemic was declared. She typically tailors wedding gowns or dresses for special occasions.

A snapshot of the clear masks made by Meredith Brookings, owner of Couture Alterations in Whitby, Ont. (Meredith Brookings)

One of her products that’s seen a spike in demand: clear masks. It started with a request from the Canadian Helen Keller Centre.

“We put our heads together to come up with a design to help,” said Bookings, who has now been inundated with requests for clear masks.

“From New Brunswick to Windsor to up north and Peterborough. I even had a couple of requests from Kansas City and Texas down in the States.”

While clear masks offer some benefits, the problem is that it’s other people — not just those in the deaf community — that need to be wearing them for them to help those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Because of that, Riddell said right now many still prefer face shields because they’re more accessible. Some are even getting creative and making shields at home.

Medical grade masks

Health Canada recently authorized the use of one type of mask with a clear mouth for medical use against COVID-19, manufactured by Clearmask LLC, a Baltimore company

It’s the first clear mask that’s been given the green light by the federal body during this pandemic, but it’s unclear how many health-care workers are wearing them in Canada.

Health Canada authorized the use of this mask during the pandemic from Baltimore-based Clearmask LLC. (Clearmask)

In the meantime, the deaf and hard of hearing community is asking for understanding from the public.

“A lot of times it’s an invisible disability,” said Lund.

“People don’t realize that there are other things going in other people’s lives. Everyone has various levels of stresses or abilities whether it’s mental health or hearing.”

Anxiety levels are high during interactions in public right now. Members of the deaf community are asking people for understanding and patience. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Sometimes that means putting yourself in another person’s position before reacting, said Riddell.

“It’s just very important for mainstream society to understand you just need to have some patience with us to communicate.” 

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