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Today’s coronavirus news: Atlantic Canada lifting travel restrictions; COVID-19 cases in South Africa surge

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The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Friday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

7 a.m. The pandemic has dinged the auto sector, but one part of the industry is faring better than it was before the crisis: used cars.

Sales of used vehicles in the U.S. have roared back after dropping 38 per cent in April, when states were shut down and some dealerships were forced to close. In June, used-vehicle sales rose 17 per cent above the pre-pandemic forecasts, according to research firm J.D. Power.

A confluence of factors is drawing buyers to the used-car lot. Some have used federal stimulus checks on their purchases, dealers and analysts say. Interest rates have fallen during the pandemic, to about 4.73 per cent on average for a 36-month used-car loan, from about 5 per cent in early March, according to Bankrate.com.

Meanwhile, many dealers are having trouble getting new vehicles from the factory, after the health crisis forced auto makers to close their plants for nearly two months this spring. That has led salespeople to more readily redirect customers to the used-car lot, dealers say.

The used-vehicle market’s swift recovery is a relief for dealers and auto makers, which have seen other areas of their businesses upended by the pandemic.

5:01 a.m.: Toronto’s northwest corner — which has been hardest hit by COVID-19 — is part of a larger hot spot of vulnerability that extends beyond the edges of the city, suggesting a broader regional cluster of high infection rates that defies boundaries and is exploiting socioeconomic inequalities, according to experts and public health data.

Officials are still trying to puzzle out why Toronto’s northwest corner has seen the city’s highest infection rates, and who, exactly, has been impacted most.

Recent reporting from the Star found that these neighbourhoods have some of the highest concentrations of residents who are low-income, racialized and living in cramped housing while working in higher-risk sectors like manufacturing. These findings were echoed Thursday by newly released data from Toronto Public Health showing that neighbourhoods with these characteristics were correlated with higher case counts.

Read more of the Star’s reporting here.

5 a.m.: The four Atlantic provinces are lifting travel restrictions within the region today, with an agreement that’s causing a mix of anxiety and excitement among people in the region.

Residents of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island can now travel to any of the other three provinces without self-isolating for 14 days after arriving.

The premiers of Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick have hinted restrictions could soon be lifted for visitors from the rest of Canada if all goes well.

Some residents have criticized the so-called “Atlantic bubble” over fears the novel coronavirus could re-emerge in the region, but health officials are encouraging people to trust the science behind the decision and keep following health measures.

4:16 a.m.: South Africa’s reported coronavirus cases are surging.

Its hospitals are now bracing for an onslaught of patients, setting up temporary wards and hoping advances in treatment will help the country’s health facilities from becoming overwhelmed.

The spike comes as the country has allowed businesses to reopen in recent weeks to stave off economic disaster after a strict two-month stay-at-home order worsened already high unemployment and drastically increased hunger.

In Johannesburg, the largest city, health officials said they are considering reimposing some restrictions to try to slow the spread of the virus.

4 a.m.: A group representing greenhouse growers in Ontario’s Windsor-Essex region says a work stoppage at a local farm due to a COVID-19 outbreak has escalated fears about testing for the virus.

The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers says in a statement that the public health order has contributed to anxiety among both farmers and workers.

On Wednesday, the region’s medical officer of health issued an order that required an unnamed farmer whose greenhouse has an active outbreak involving 191 workers to isolate those employees and stop work.

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The medical officer of health for Windsor-Essex issued the order after a rash of positive tests over the weekend.

The growers group says it is working with the sector and the provincial government to address those fears as on-farm testing continues.

Premier Doug Ford said Thursday the work stoppage will not encourage local farmers to participate in efforts to combat the virus.

Thursday 5 p.m. Ontario’s regional health units are reporting a total of 37,389 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19, including 2,728 deaths, up a total of 154 new cases since Wednesday evening, according to the Star’s latest count.

As has been the case in recent weeks, the vast majority of new cases reported Thursday came in a small handful of health units. Just Toronto (77 new cases), Peel Region (23 cases) and York Region (21 cases) reported increases in the double digits.

New infections are down sharply, even in these regions. In Toronto, for example, the long-term average rate of new infections has fallen from 196 per day in early June to just 53 daily as of Thursday.

Four more fatal cases were reported Thursday, all in Toronto.

The daily rate of deaths has also fallen sharply since peaking in early May when the health units reported as many as 94 deaths in a single day.

Earlier, the province reported the Canada Day holiday meant it had incomplete information on the number of Ontarians currently hospitalized with COVID-19. The most recent totals of patients hospitalized, in the ICU or ventilated in Ontario hospitals were near the lowest levels in records that were first made public in early April.

The province says its data is accurate to 4 p.m. the previous day. The province also cautions its latest count of total deaths, 2,680, may be incomplete or out of date due to delays in the reporting system. 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. This means 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.

Thursday 2:45 p.m.: More than three million Canadians either lost their jobs or had their hours significantly reduced due to COVID-19, according to Statistics Canada.

And now that economies across the country are reopening, some people are looking to change course, having realized their careers aren’t as viable as they may have been pre-pandemic.

Many are going back to school to pursue an entirely new profession — for example, Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education saw a 15 per cent jump in its spring enrolment, according to dean Gary Hepburn, even after the school’s in-person courses had to be cancelled.

Read the full story from the Star’s Rosa Saba.

Click here to read more of Thursday’s coverage.



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Why 1 small Regina school insists on daily temperature checks, 4-day weeks and mandatory masks in class

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David Vanderberg says his school’s back-to-school plan exceeds the minimum safety standards set out by Saskatchewan health officials “because the bar is not set very high.” 

“We feel as though we’ve got one chance to get this right,” said Vanderberg, the principal of Regina’s Prairie Sky School.

The school, which falls under the category of “qualified independent schools” that receive half of their funding from the province, only has about 80 students total, spread across Grades 1 to 8. 

When Prairie Sky’s students return to class next month, they will have their temperatures checked daily by the front gate and be required to wear masks inside the classroom (though much of the school’s teaching happens outside, Vanderberg said). 

Kindergarten students will be exempt from that rule, but will need to wear face shields.

The school will also cut its schedule to four days a week, down from four and a half. 

“[That’s] one less day in the week that that potential transmission could occur,” Vanderberg said. 

Responding to ‘a complete lack of leadership’

Prairie Sky School released its plan on Tuesday, the same day the province outlined minimum standards for mandatory masking and clarified that individual school boards would decide when to make the move to “Level 2” and require masks. 

Vanderberg said Tuesday was the earliest his school could publicly release its plan because the province approved the plans for public and separate school divisions first and did not approve Prairie Sky School’s plan until Monday.

He said the province’s larger back-to-school strategy “demonstrates a complete lack of leadership.”

Principal David Vanderberg says the province’s back-to-school strategy ‘demonstrates a complete lack of leadership.’ (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

“It is putting the onus of student safety and staff safety on individual school boards and individual schools as opposed to taking the responsibility for that as a Ministry of Education and as the government of Saskatchewan,” Vanderberg said. 

Carla Beck, the Saskatchewan NDP’s education critic, has criticized the province’s a-la-carte approach, saying it leaves school divisions open to “political fallout.” 

Education Minister Gord Wyant has defended the choice, saying what works for a small school may not be appropriate for a larger one. 

Not all families on board with masking

Vanderberg said a minority of families have requested to withdraw their child from the school because of the masking policy, but that other families want in because of the plan.

“The best we can do is say that we can put you on the waiting list,” he said. 

Vanderberg said the school has tried to keep the conversation around masking “as fact-based as possible.” 

“Overwhelmingly the response from the education community, the American medical community, in Saskatchewan and elsewhere in Canada has been that masking, when social distancing is not a possibility, is effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “So that’s what we’re going with.”

According to the minimum Level 2 standards released by the province Tuesday, Saskatchewan students in Grades 4 to 12 at schools using that level will need to wear masks in hallways, buses and other high traffic areas. Inside classrooms, however, “masks may be required….where it is not possible to maintain physical distancing or where students are outside of the cohort within their classroom.”

Vanderberg said the province allowed schools go over and above the minimum standards, so that’s what Prairie Sky School did. 

(Prairie Sky School)

Vanderberg acknowledged daily temperature checks will require a robust supply of thermometers. 

“But that’s our job. And that’s important. And we’re going to find the money,” he said. 

The school pays for the other half of its budget through fundraising and scholarships.

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Most B.C. parents in favour of face masks in class, but divided on back-to-school plans, poll finds

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Most parents in B.C. are in favour of sending their children to class with a face mask to wear, but are split on what should happen after school bells ring in September, a new poll suggests.

About half (49 per cent) of British Columbians surveyed by Insight West were in favour of the provincial government’s plan to reopen schools, while 42 per cent oppose it.

The poll confirms what Premier John Horgan already suspected — not everyone is pleased with the back-to-school plans, said the market research firm’s president Steve Mossop in a news release .

“Our latest poll on the state of readiness of parents and the general public to go back to school shows a significant level of fear and uncertainty,” reads his statement.

The poll suggests parents appear to be divided on three key facets: their comfort level with sending their kids back to class, their take on the idea of possibly wearing masks and their preferences between online and in-person learning.

If given a choice, four out of ten parents (41 per cent) prefer a mix of online and in-person classes, just over a quarter (27 per cent) would put their kids back in a full-time classroom setting and 27 per cent prefer all learning takes place online, according to the poll.

The poll suggests about half of parents (51 per cent) feel very or somewhat comfortable sending their kids back to the classroom, while another 30 per cent are not very comfortable and 19 per cent are not comfortable at all.

Parents also expressed concerns about isolating their children without any in-class learning and shortcomings in the quality of online learning.

Seventy-one per cent of respondents agree with the statement “if there is not in-class learning, I worry about my child(ren)’s socialization” and about two-thirds (63 per cent) concur that in-class learning is necessary because online instruction provides a “poor quality” of education.

Parents expressed concern

About half of parents (49 per cent) say they do not know how they will manage remote learning and a similar proportion (46 per cent) do not have childcare in place if their kids stay home, the poll suggests.

Parents were also split on whether their children would be safe from exposure to COVID-19 if they return to classrooms full time.

Four out of five of parents (80 per cent) agree they need more information about how the plan will work, and seven out of every ten (70 per cent) say the provincial government is not being strict enough with the rules around reopening schools.

Meanwhile, the majority of respondents (85 per cent) praise the government’s overall handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Masks in schools

In an interview on Wednesday, Mossop said he was most surprised about the overwhelming support for masks in schools, which presents a stark contrast to what he has observed anecdotally while visiting malls and in transit.

“[It’s] what people do versus what they say,” he said, adding there was less controversy in the responses this time around compared to another poll from about a month and a half ago.

The latest online study sampled 825 B.C. residents from Aug. 5 to Aug. 9, according to the release. A comparable margin of error for a study this size would be +/- 3.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

According to the B.C. government’s website, schools will be reopening with in-class instruction within learning groups, capped at 60 students for elementary and middle schools, and 120 for high schools.

The website states students and staff will not be required to wear face masks while at school.

It advises young children should not use masks and recommends staff and older students wear non-medical masks in situations outside their learning group and where physical distancing is not possible for an extended period of time. 

“Wearing a mask is a personal choice that will always be respected,” reads the website.

Non-medical masks will be provided upon request.

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Some Yukon students should wear masks on buses, says chief medical officer

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Yukon’s chief medical officer is recommending that some students wear protective face masks on school buses this year, and in other situations where physical distancing is not possible.

Dr. Brendan Hanley’s recommendation is aimed at students aged 10 and older, but not mandatory.

“I make this recommendation based on emerging evidence that older children may be just as likely to transmit COVID-19 as adults,” he said at a news conference on Wednesday.

He said masks will be provided to students by the Yukon Department of Education. He also said mask use inside schools will be decided by officials at each individual school.

“The general approach, though, will be toward usage in corridors and in movement between rooms, but not in classrooms where children will already be well-spaced,” he said.

Hanley also said Wednesday that he still not in favour of making masks mandatory for all Yukoners.

Watch Wednesday’s news conference here:

Operational plans for each school

Classes begin at Yukon elementary and secondary schools on Aug. 20.

On Wednesday, Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said all schools have now developed their own operational plans for the coming year. 

“Planning for this school year has been challenging, and different than other years. It has taken a tremendous amount of effort from individuals across the territory,” McPhee said.

The Yukon government earlier set out new health and safety measures for schools to follow when students head back to class. It includes hand washing and physical distancing requirements, as well as staggered breaks and pick-up and drop-off times.

Most Grade 10 to 12 students will only go to class part-time in Whitehorse, in an effort to keep student numbers low and maintain physical distancing. Elementary school students and high schoolers outside Whitehorse will go to school full-time, with those enhanced safety measures.

The operational plans for each school spell out how those safety measures will be observed. For example, at F.H. Collins Secondary School in Whitehorse, students in Grades 8 and 9 will be put in “pods” to limit movement in the building. That means they will remain in the same class most of the day.

McPhee said operational plans can be found on each school’s website. 

She said that all plans will be monitored through the coming weeks and adjusted if necessary.

“We are completely invested in this school year being successful for students,” she said.

Some parents and teachers have been vocal about their concerns for the school year. Some, including hospital workers, have opted to home-school their kids to keep them safe, while others say they can’t afford that option.

Parents of high school students in Whitehorse have also raised concerns about their reduced class time, saying it could lead to added stress and poor grades.

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