Is it safe for students and teachers to return to schools for in-class learning — yes or no?
That’s the thorny question Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet ministers are wrestling with amid conflicting pandemic advice.
Parents, local medical officers of health and top pediatric experts are telling Progressive Conservative MPPs they want schools to open — even just for a few weeks before classes wrap up at the end of June.
But Ford is demanding a “consensus” from Dr. David Williams, the chief medical officer of health, the science table of doctors and epidemiologists, and others before proceeding.
Williams insisted Tuesday he’s eager for schools to reopen as early as next week, but said it’s a decision that has to be made “at the cabinet level” — and one he hopes will come soon.
For schools to reopen in any part of Ontario on Monday, boards, parents, students and educators would likely need to know by Thursday in order to get ready.
“If there is an intention that people will be going back, the sooner we know, the better,” said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.
However, she added, “reopening is such a difficult question, which explains why it is taking so long to make a decision. We know there are lots of kids that need to be back at school, for a variety of reasons — and we also know there are those, for very good reasons, that are worried. I understand the dilemma.”
Last week, Ford acknowledged parents’ anxiety and said he “would love to get the kids back” into classrooms, but was concerned about a rise in COVID-19 cases.
“Right now we have some differing opinions. Dr. Williams … (is) in favour of opening the schools. We have a few doctors on the science table that aren’t in favour,” said the premier, who has been criticized by the science table for reopening some aspects of the economy too quickly in the past.
That’s one reason why last Thursday’s blueprint for opening things up next month in Ontario, which is tied to increasing vaccination rates and decreasing case counts, did not outline specific benchmarks for schools.
Ford and his cabinet are said to want to be assured that any reopening is safe for both students and teachers, who are more vulnerable to COVID-19 because it takes a greater toll on older people than on children and youth.
Steini Brown, dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and co-chair of the science table, predicted last week that resuming in-person classes could boost cases of COVID-19 by between six and 11 per cent.
Still, Brown said reopening could be “manageable in some regions” — although at least one outspoken epidemiologist on his table has taken to Twitter to vehemently disagree.
Against that backdrop, Ford is uneasy.
No teachers or students are known to have died from COVID-19 contracted in an Ontario school since the pandemic started 14 months ago, but there are still safety concerns around the cabinet table.
Williams, meanwhile, has said reopenings may be focused in areas where case numbers remain low, like Kingston, and local officers of health have said they support staff and students returning to school.
That approach has been also been urged by a growing number of medical experts, including the Hospital for Sick Children and the Canadian Pediatric Society, while others have recommended students remain online to help ensure a full return in September.
Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel’s top doctor, who shut down schools in the hard-hit region in mid-April before the provincial order to do so, said, “we continue to monitor the numbers in Peel and are optimistic that they are trending in a favourable direction that, if maintained, might support a return to in-person learning.”
York Region’s public health unit even sent out a letter to its school boards, saying with more people receiving vaccines and fewer COVID cases recorded, it supports a return to class “as soon as possible.”
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, didn’t rule out local schools reopening next month but said she wants to compare provincial guidance to local COVID-19 levels.
Asked if she should have the power to order schools to reopen — given she also ordered them shut in early April — de Villa demurred, insisting “our purview is public health” and that some considerations must rest with provincial officials.
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation — which filed an injunction before spring break attempting to shut down York Region schools until teachers were vaccinated, amid high COVID-19 levels — said the union has not been involved in any reopening talks.
“That said, we do not oppose a regional reopening strategy wherever it can be made safe to do so,” Bischof said. “Having been unable to generate any conversation with government, we are reaching out to regional medical officers of health.”
A letter from the Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health sent to Education Minister Stephen Lecce, called it “imperative” that students get back to school, saying “a return to in-person learning even for a short time before the summer break would provide multiple mental health and wellness benefits to students and their families.”