By Allison Martell
TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's most populous province of Ontario will resume in-person classes for primary and secondary students across all regions by Feb. 16 following a drop in coronavirus infections, the province's education ministry said on Wednesday.
Schools in southern Ontario, where most residents live, remained closed after the winter break amid a surge in coronavrius cases, but some began to reopen on Monday.
Most areas will reopen schools on Feb. 8 while schools in Toronto, nearby York and Peel will reopen last on Feb. 16.
"We have seen a consistent decline in community transmission," said education minister Stephen Lecce. "With the full support of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, and with the unanimous support of all local medical officers of health, Ontario is ready to reopen our schools, because it is safe."
In neighboring Quebec elementary and high schools have mostly stayed open despite the province introducing a night-time curfew to contain the virus.
Ontario announced its decision to reopen schools two days after the province said it had identified a case of the coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa, in a patient with no history of travel. The case suggests the variant, which appears to be more contagious, may be spreading in the community.
If more contagious variants become common in the province, the spread of COVID-19 could accelerate.
Lecce signaled that schools could close again: "If things change, if trends move in the wrong direction, we will not hesitate to act."
Experts advising the province said last week that modeling and international examples suggested it would be possible to continue reducing cases while reopening schools, by keeping other public health measures in place.
The province's stay at home order, which forbids non-essential activities outside the home, remains in place.
(Reporting by Allison Martell; Editing by Leslie Adler and Grant McCool)