Premier Doug Ford is leaning strongly against reopening schools, the Star has learned.
While sources close to the premier said Ford wanted children back in classrooms for the first time since mid-April, public health officials have warned him that can only occur if the broader opening of the economy is delayed.
“It can’t happen unfortunately. The risks are too great,” a senior Progressive Conservative official, speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations, said Tuesday morning.
On Monday night, the cabinet’s policy and priorities committee recommended keeping students learning online from home because the school year ends in a few weeks.
“This way we can still save summer sports and summer camps for kids,” the insider said, conceding the importance of mental health considerations.
That would allow Ontario, which has been under a state of emergency and a stay-at-home order since April 17, to begin the first stage of reopening the economy as early as this Friday. The emergency orders end Wednesday.
By Friday, the province will have met the necessary threshold of having 60 per cent of adults with one shot and dailydropping.
Such a move would allow restaurant patios to reopen, more retail shops to welcome customers inside at 15 per cent capacity, and groups of up to 10 people from different households to gather outside.
While Dr. David Williams, the chief medical officer of health, regional medical officers, and members of the science table agree it is safe to reopen schools to in-class learning, they say everything else must be kept on hold.
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s chief medical officer of health, said last Friday “our preference is that the restoration of in-person learning should precede the lifting of any other restrictions implemented to reduce COVID-19 transmission.”
The premier wrote public health officials and educators last Thursday seeking “consensus” on whether it is safe to have kids inside schools.
Ford will hold a virtual meeting with the Progressive Conservative caucus on Tuesday to explain the conundrum, insiders say.
On Wednesday, cabinet will finalize the decision to keep schools closed until September.
Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of the province’s COVID-19 science advisory table, said he supports allowing kids and teachers in classrooms on a regional basis because “schools are the only item on our menu that don’t trigger travel,” which is what happens when retail or outdoor dining reopen.
But Juni stressed last week there is “a calculated risk” to resuming classes in schools.
He said with the province already having opened up outdoor amenities, like golf courses and tennis courts, if Queen’s Park were to open schools then everything else would have to wait.
“You can’t add anything on top of that,” said Juni. “If you want to open schools, you need to wait with patios, probably until the end of June, when we are in a position of going into the summer holidays anyway.”
A growing number of pediatric experts has said children’s mental health would be helped by a return to classrooms.
Sick Kids, CHEO in Eastern Ontario, and the Canadian Pediatric Society have said it’s imperative that kids return to class because the isolation of remote learning has taken its toll.
Children have “suffered immeasurably over the course of the pandemic … the benefits of a few weeks in classroom cannot be overstated,” they wrote in an open letter to Ford.
Thunder Bay mom Leila Coulter, 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.
“The evidence is clear that the harm being done to these children by not being in school far outweighs any safety risks to them from being in school. It’s time to open schools now.”
Tory sources agreed mental health is a concern and note that once Ontario enters stage one of reopening, then up to 10 kids will be able to gather outside to play sports and hang out.
They argued that the forced closure of summer camps or another lockdown in July or August might have a greater cost for children and their families.
Critics of reopening have questioned the wisdom of resuming classes for just a few weeks during the warm weather, in schools unlikely to have air conditioning and when not all classes can be accommodated outside.
They have also said mask wearing could prove uncomfortable for kids and teachers alike in the heat.
Ontario is now the only province in Canada where all schools remained closed, after Nova Scotia began reopening this week.
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, compared school reopenings to Monday’s Leafs-Canadiens’ game at Scotiabank Arena, where after lengthy deliberations, fully vaccinated health-care workers were allowed to attend in person.
“Ford and the (Ministry of Health) determined that it was only safe for 550 people who are fully vaccinated to attend the Leaf game tonight in an arena that holds 20,000,” Hammond said via Twitter on Monday.
“Now they are deciding if 550 (education) workers and students, with maybe one vaccination, can gather in a school that holds 550 people.”