Ontarians wait on tenterhooks for school reopening news as experts weigh in

Public health experts, school boards and teachers’ unions weighed in Friday as Ontario residents waited on tenterhooks for the premier’s last-minute decision on whether to reopen schools for the final month of the academic year.

Doug Ford had solicited input from dozens of public health authorities and education stakeholders, prompting critics to accuse him of abdicating responsibility on the matter.

But Ford said he doesn’t want to rely solely on the advice of the province’s top public health official, Dr. David Williams, who believes students should return to the classroom.

“I know very clearly where Dr. Williams stands,” Ford said. 

“But I want the scientists to weigh in. I want to make sure the teachers’ unions weigh in. I want other educational workers to weigh in. I don’t want to rush this.”

Ford wrote to those experts and stakeholders Thursday, giving them 36 hours to respond. 

The four major teachers’ unions, in a joint response to the premier, repeated calls they’ve been making since last summer, saying the province should reduce class sizes and institute even stronger COVID-19 testing and tracing protocols.

Some schools should be allowed to reopen, unions say

They also said some schools should be allowed to reopen.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, Ontario’s teachers and education workers have supported the safe, regional reopening of schools,” the unions wrote.

Dr. Nathan Stall, a member of the province’s scientific advisory group, said a regional approach makes sense.

“Individual public health units need to weigh in on the decision of whether or not they feel that their public health unit can safely accommodate and manage and prevent the cases that may arise with school reopening,” he said in an interview Friday.

The Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table has said that reopening schools for the month of June would likely result in a spike in cases of six to 11 per cent, which it said could be “manageable.”

Schools across the province moved learning online in April due to soaring rates of COVID-19.

Ford said he’s concerned about reopening schools given the presence of more contagious variants of COVID-19, as well  as relatively low rates of vaccinated teachers and students.

All but 2 public health units feel prepared to reopen

But critics said the last-minute letter shows Ford is passing the buck on making a decision about schools, particularly given earlier reliance on Williams’ word.

Williams has said all but two public health units feel prepared to reopen schools.

Toronto is among the units that feel prepared to reopen schools, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa told Ford.

“At Toronto Public Health, our preference is that the restoration of in-person learning should precede the lifting of any other restrictions implemented to reduce COVID-19 transmission,” de Villa wrote in her letter.

She said Toronto Public Health is prepared to test for COVID-19 and contact trace to minimize the risk of outbreaks in schools.

The association that represents school boards publicly responded Friday to Ford’s letter, saying that while the decision  should be left up to public health experts, there are a number of measures in place allowing boards to reopen safely.

“We do know that circumstances across the province have changed since mid-April when many schools shuttered,” the letter from the Ontario Public School Board Association reads.

“Case numbers continue to decrease while vaccination rates increase, including those for school-aged children. If deemed safe, a return to in-person learning would end school on a positive note for a year that saw many interruptions.”

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