Premier Doug Ford promised Wednesday to publicly disclose COVID-19 infection rates in the province’s schools and allow municipalities to reimpose public health restrictions if needed.
The pledge for greater transparency comes as the province begins to reopen its schools over the next two weeks for the first time during the pandemic.
The official Opposition had called on the government to centralize the reporting of COVID-19 outbreaks on schools, and Ford acknowledged on Wednesday that parents should have that information.
“I think it’s so important we report every single case as we did with long-term care, we’ll do the same in school,” he said.
Ford’s school reopening plan has been criticized by boards, teachers’ unions and some parents for not doing enough to cut class sizes and allow for physical distancing.
The government has repeatedly defended the plan as safe, and stressed that it has been developed in consultation with medical experts.
Toronto’s medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa addressed some of the concerns expressed by parents on Wednesday, saying just because one child contracts the virus doesn’t mean it will lead to widespread infection.
“I truly wish I could say that there won’t be cases, that there won’t be any cases of COVID-19 in our schools. But we know there will be,” de Villa said.
“Everyone, everyone in our community must do their part to help limit the number of cases.”
Dr. de Villa says anyone who tests positive will have to be out of school for at least 14 days. Students will only be allowed back in class when Toronto Public Health deems it safe for them do so.
She says letters are going home to all parents and guardians explaining the protections in place across Toronto’s schools.
“Over the summer, my team worked with local schools to help them plan re-opening. These plans include things we learn from other places, with schools already back. We have examples to follow about what works, and what doesn’t.”
In recent days, cases of the novel coronavirus have been reported in a number of schools in the province.
Ottawa’s French Catholic School Board said six people “associated” with five of its schools, which opened last Thursday, have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
On Tuesday, a school in Oakville said an employee had tested positiveM/a> for the virus after participating in a staff PA day last week.
Gail McDonald said in a letter to parents that a staff member at Oodenawi Public School tested positive for COVID-19 just days before students returned to class. All staff who had close contact with the individual have been ordered by public health to self-isolate for 14 days.
The school was informed of the positive test on Monday, she added.
Under provincial guidelines, all schools are required to disclose COVID-19 cases to parents while protecting personal privacy.
Ford said he believes the province needs to disclose the numbers and the government is working on a plan to do that along with its regular COVID-19 data.
“I know they’re rolling this out over the next week or two,” he said.
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the province must take ownership of the reporting rather than leaving disclosures to individual schools or boards.
“The Ford government tried to downplay and hide the growing tragedy in long-term care homes as the virus swept in,” she said in a statement. “We can’t let them make the same mistake with our children.”
Ford also said Thursday that if cities or regional governments want to impose additional restrictions, or close bars or banquet halls to limit the spread of COVID-19, he would support them.
He said they have the power to issue local public health orders, but action at the provincial level would be far too sweeping.
“You’re the mayors, make a decision,” he said. “We’ll support you. But to say that I’m going to close the whole province, it’s unacceptable. I wouldn’t close the whole province when … 16 regions don’t have one single case. It’s not fair to the rest of the province.”
Ford’s comments come after British Columbia ordered all nightclubs and banquet halls to close after COVID-19 cases began to rise in the province.
Earlier Wednesday, Toronto Mayor John Tory said the province could stop bars from serving alcohol at midnight to help limit virus spread in those businesses.
City of Toronto staff said in July they do not have the authority to order establishments to close early and the province would have to issue the order.
When Ontario entered Stage 3 of reopening this summer, Tory and other mayors asked the province to impose restricted serving hours but the Ford government declined.
“We have to watch the numbers. They are going in the wrong direction,” Tory said Wednesday. (The new cases) are occurring in crowd scenes and crowd scenes occur at parties and weddings but they also include bars … and sometimes the only way to deal with that is to have them close earlier.”