Ontario premier seeks input from medical experts and stakeholders on potential reopening of schools

TORONTO — Premier Doug Ford has written a letter to dozens of medical experts and stakeholders asking them for their input on a potential reopening of schools in June.

Ontario schools have been closed for in-person learning since mid-April but with the province planning to enter the first phase of its reopening plan by June 14, and the academic year nearing an end, the calls to allow students to return to the classroom for at least a few weeks of in-person instruction are growing louder.

On Thursday, Ford wrote a letter to dozens of medical experts and a handful of education sector unions asking them for “input on the possible safe return to schools before the end of this academic year.”

In the letter Ford says that his government understands “the mental health, academic and other challenges some students have faced with at-home learning, particularly those from low-income, racialized and high needs neighbourhoods.”

But at the same time he said that his government is expecting new modelling this week which will suggest that a return to the classroom could result in daily case counts rising to between 2,000 and 4,000 a day by the end of July.

Ontario’s Science Advisory Table has previously suggested that reopening schools would only result in a “manageable” six to 11 per cent increase in case counts.

“In recent weeks, there has been a wide range of advice and commentary around the reopening of schools in Ontario. There is consensus in some quarters on how, when and whether schools should reopen, and diverse and conflicting views in others,” Ford writes in the letter. “Keeping children safe is our foremost consideration, which is why as experts in health, public health and education we are seeking your perspective.”

Earlier this spring Education Minister Stephen Lecce repeatedly contended that schools were safe and not a significant source of COVID-19 transmission.

Ford, however, says in his letter that schools were actually the source of “of more outbreaks than workplaces or any other location” in April.

He also points out that only 41 per cent of Ontario teachers and education workers have received a COVID-19 vaccine compared to 62 per cent of the general population, something he calls “concerning.”

It should be noted that Ford has so far refused to commit to reopening schools, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said earlier this week that he would support a resumption of in-person learning in at least some parts of the province.

A group of dozens of doctors also released a letter on Tuesday warning that the prolonged closure of schools has us “on the cusp of a generational catastrophe.”

“As premier, my priority throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has always been to protect the health and safety of Ontarians. We need now to ensure there is broad consensus from our medical, public health, and education experts that returning to school is the right thing to do,” Ford says in his letter to stakeholders.

These are the seven questions included in Ford’s letter:

  • Is the reopening of schools for in person learning safe for students?
  • Is the reopening of schools for in person learning safe for education staff?
  • There are a growing number of cases in Ontario of the variant first identified in India
  • (B.1.617). Does this mutation pose an increased risk to students and education workers?
  • The modelling from the Ontario Science Table has suggested that reopening schools will lead to an increase in cases in the province of Ontario, is this acceptable and safe?
  • Other countries are warning mutations including the B.1.617 variant45 are putting children at much greater risk and are shutting schools down. Is this concern not shared by medical experts in Ontario?
  • Should teachers be fully vaccinated before resuming in class lessons and if not, is one dose sufficient?
  • Under Ontario’s reopening plan, indoor gatherings won’t commence until July. Should indoor school instruction resume before then?

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