Ontario’s top doctor says Toronto-area public health units are ‘prepared’ to have children return to the classroom

TORONTO — Ontario’s top public health official says that he believes that schools can be reopened safely and has received feedback from all Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area public health units indicating that they are “prepared” to have children return to the classroom as soon as next week.

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.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams has previously suggested that in-person learning could resume on a regional basis given the disparity in COVID-19 case counts between different communities, but during a briefing on Thursday, he said that all of the medical officers of health in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area have indicated to him that they are “prepared” to have their schools open and will have the necessary case and contact management resources in place to support a safe reopening.

Williams said that so far, only the Porcupine Public Health Unit in northern Ontario has objected to reopening schools due to a spike in cases in Timmins.

“We closed pre-emptively because while we knew the schools were safe and there wasn’t ongoing transmission within the schools, with the overwhelming increase in the community numbers that rose up rapidly in the third wave we could not guarantee with our public health monitoring at the time to assure the parents of their safety,” he said. “We now feel that from a public health standpoint they are prepared to handle that (the reopening of schools). Our case numbers are coming down rapidly, our positivity rate is down and the other thing now is that 65 per cent of the adult population has been vaccinated, many of those are parents of children going to school.”

Williams has been outspoken about his desire to reopen schools in recent days, but Premier Doug Ford has yet to commit to doing so before the end of the academic year.

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” this June.

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.”

Schools were sources of more outbreaks than any workplace in April

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 suggested 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 while Ford has so far refused to commit to reopening schools a number of top children’s hospitals, including SickKids, have repeatedly advocated for a return to the classroom.

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.”

“The longer this goes on the more harm, the more isolation and the more anxiety (there will be for children),” Dr. Martha Fulford, an infectious disease specialist at McMaster Children’s Hospital, told CP24 on Thursday afternoon. “We have reached a tipping point, we have a second public health crisis that has happened and we have to pivot and deal with this second public health crisis now.”

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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