Premier Doug Ford says a decision about whether to allow students and teachers to resume in-person classes for the last month of school will soon be announced.
Ford had asked educators, the province’s science advisory table and other experts to give input by last Friday as to whether they think such a move is safe.
“We were looking at all the responses over the weekend,” Ford said Monday. “We’ll have an announcement in the next day or two, and we’ll get out there and make that announcement about going back to school or not.”
A growing group of pediatric specialists and other experts, including the regional medical officers of health, have said they support schools reopening, especially targeted reopenings in areas with low numbers of COVID-19 cases.
But there are others who cite the possibility of a six to 11 per cent increase in cases just as the province is making huge strides in bringing numbers down — an increase that could threaten any other easing of restrictions and also summer camps.
In the legislature Monday, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said “students and their parents have been left in limbo now, waiting for the details of the possible reopening of schools” and said the appeal for input last week was Ford deciding to “lob a frantic last-minute consultation into the communities.”
Schools were shut down across the province in mid-April, although a handful of boards had already done so when the government order came.
Horwath said students have been “stuck at home for months, kids are missing their friends and they’re missing the social interactions that we all know that they need. Parents have been missing a normal life but also have been very, very worried about their children’s ability to learn. They’ve been watching their kids become more and more depressed and more and more lonely. Nothing that they can do about that has occurred, though. They are sitting unable to address what’s happening to their children.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said medical officers of health “have noted that the schools have been safe. We’ve always acknowledged that schools reflect our community.”
However, he added, “we are obviously broadening the consultation to ensure we get this decision right, to not compromise the incredible hard work and sacrifice that Ontarians have made together to get our case rates down over the past weeks and get our vaccination up in the province of Ontario.”
Ford’s letter seeking input said that Ontario schools were the largest transmitter of COVID-19 cases in April, which came as a surprise to many in the sector.
It also pegged teacher vaccination rates at about 40 per cent, which unions questioned given there is no mandatory disclosure of occupation when someone does get their shot, and no surveys taken of educators to gauge uptake.
Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation president Harvey Bischof said he would expect teacher vaccination rates to mirror those of the general public.
Across the country, schools are open in full or in part in most provinces, with the exception of Nova Scotia, where they had been closed for in-person classes but some are set to reopen this week.
Ford has faced criticism for not making a decision sooner. He has said he’s not “afraid” to do so, but that he wanted to be “supercautious” before taking action.
“I want to make sure the kids are safe. I want to make sure the teachers are safe,” the premier told reporters at Queen’s Park last week. “That’s why this week I wrote to the experts in health, public health and education, asking for their input.”
All of the province’s medical officers of health have signalled their support for in-person classes, except for Porcupine which has seen an uptick in cases.
The Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which represents CUPE support workers in schools, took the call for input as an opportunity to blast the province.
The council said it has “steadfastly maintained that students and workers can be accommodated safely in schools through access to vaccination, sufficient investment in protocols, physical improvements to buildings, broad occupational health and safety measures and procedures, and increased staffing levels. Unfortunately, throughout the pandemic, your government has failed to put in place the very measures that would guarantee safe school reopenings in our province.”
As well, it added, “after more than a year of dealing with the COVID pandemic, your government has consistently demonstrated an inability to address the safety of students and school board staff. Rather than give school boards clear directives on safety, your government offers ‘guidelines’ and even now, at this critical moment, you seem unable to make a decision. Perhaps it’s time for you and the members of your cabinet to resign and let others who are willing to lead take over to get the job done.”
Ontario’s four major teachers’ unions said in their response that smaller classes and improved air filtration systems are needed, but “the situation is not the same everywhere in the province, and the government must defer to the advice of local medical officers of health regarding what is best for their communities.”
The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association said the decision rightly rests with public health experts.
However, president Cathy Abraham added that “if deemed safe, a return to in-person learning would end school on a positive note for a year that saw many interruptions.”
Leila Coulter, a Thunder Bay mother who started a petition to reopen local schools, noted students there have been out of classrooms much longer than those in the rest of the province due to a winter case surge.
“Children in our region haven’t been in the classroom since Feb. 26, and they are suffering,” said Coulter, a chiropractor and mother of four.