Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health responded to Premier Ford’s letter on the potential reopening of schools saying Toronto Public Health (TPH) supports reopening in-person learning before other restrictions are lifted.
Dr. Eileen de Villa said in a statement issued Friday that TPH participated in a study with Sick Kids which showed there are usually multiple strains of COVID-19 in school populations.
“This suggests that students and staff who had COVID-19 in a school setting most often acquired their infection in the community,” she said in the statement.
De Villa also says studies have shown transmission risk appears to be low where there are comprehensive COVID-19 measures in place.
She says TPH has the capacity to conduct timely contact tracing at the current levels of community transmission. But she says an increase of community transmission would negatively impact this capacity.
“It is established that school-aged children have suffered from the suspension of in-person learning, despite the necessity of this course of action,” de Villa said.
She notes that infection rates in the school population reflect infection rates in the general population, suggesting a return to in-person learning must be measured against the current levels of infection in the province, including infections stemming from variants of concern.
De Villa acknowledges the decision whether or not to reopen schools for in-person learning is a difficult one, and she says TPH will be ready to support the direction the province chooses to take regarding the matter.
Both de Villa and her counterpart in Peel Region, Dr. Lawrence Loh, ordered schools to close in April due to soaring cases, days ahead of a province-wide decision to move classes online.
TPH supports reopening in-person learning before other restrictions are lifted, to allow for further vaccinations & further decline in #COVID19 infections. Read Dr. @epdevilla's response to Premier Ford's letter regarding the safe reopening of schools: https://t.co/Yv3u5zDh9x pic.twitter.com/0QVDrCJnhd
— Toronto Public Health (@TOPublicHealth) May 28, 2021
The Premier’s office tells 680 NEWS there will be no announcement on Friday regarding school re-openings, despite Premier Ford saying he expected to gather responses from health and education stakeholders by 5:00 p.m. on Friday, before his government could ultimately reach a decision.
Ford said he realizes these decisions take time and is encouraging everyone involved to meticulously vet through scientific data before reaching a conclusion.
In his letter, Ford says “no one wants to see our schools reopen safely more than I do,” adding that while his government understands the benefits of having kids return to class, it can only be done based on “sound scientific advice, consensus and considers potential or future risks faced by students and staff.”
Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said he would like to see schools resume in-person learning before the province enters the first step of its reopening plan in mid-June.
Williams says he has heard from many public health agencies, including those in the hard-hit Toronto areas, who want to see schools reopen.
But Ford – who has been accused of abdicating responsibility on the matter – said Friday that he doesn’t want to rely solely on the advice of Dr. Williams.
“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.”
In the letter, Ford cites a recent study from Public Health England by the UK government, which he claims indicated a single dose of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine was just 33 per cent effective against the B.1.617.2 COVID-19 variant first identified in India.
“That variant is also on the rise in Ontario,” he wrote.
On Friday, The Ontario Public School Boards Association (OPSBA) also issued a letter of their own, saying schools should be the last to close and the first to open.
The OPSBA says that should a decision be made to reopen schools, “it is essential that school boards be provided with sufficient notice to enable a smooth transition back to in-person learning.”
Meanwhile, teachers’ unions repeated calls for stronger safety measures ahead of any possible reopening.
The president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) called for more health and safety supports.
“ETFO firmly believes that in-person instruction is the best experience for students, but it must be done safely, without risk to the health and well-being of students and education workers,” Sam Hammond said.
As of Friday, there have been a total of 528,453 cases of COVID-19 in the province.
With files from The Canadian Press