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Ford awaits response from dozens of experts, stakeholders before deciding on schools

Last Updated May 28, 2021 at 3:13 pm EDT

Health and education stakeholders in Ontario have been asked to respond to a letter from the premier, seeking advice on the potential reopening of schools.

In the letter, the Premier posed seven questions to doctors, scientists, and educators saying he expects to gather their responses by 5:00 p.m. on Friday before his government can ultimately reach a decision.

  • Is the reopening of schools for in-person learning safe for students?


  • Is the reopening of schools for in-person learning safe for teachers and all 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 variant are putting children at much greater risk and is 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?

The Premier’s office tells 680 NEWS despite that 5:00 p.m. deadline, there will be no announcement today regarding school re-openings.

Ford said Friday that he realizes these decisions take time and is encouraging everyone involved to meticulously vet through scientific data before reaching a conclusion.

In the 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.”

“In recent weeks, there has been a wide range of advice and commentary around the reopening of schools in Ontario,” wrote the Premier.

“There is consensus in some quarters on how, when and whether schools should reopen, and diverse and conflicting views in others,” Ford continued.

“Keeping children safe is our foremost consideration, which is why as experts in health, public health and education we are seeking your perspective.”

Ontario schools have been shut since April when they were the sources of more COVID-19 outbreaks than workplaces or any other location, the Premier said.

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 area, who want to see schools reopen.

Speaking on Thursday, Dr. Williams said the province’s schools are “ready to open when they are asked to do so.”

“I’ve been supporting opening schools for in-person attendance,” Williams reiterated.

“… Our case numbers are coming down rapidly, our positivity rate is down and the other thing now is that 65 percent of the adult population has been vaccinated, many of those are parents of children going to school.”

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 percent 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.

“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 are broad consensus from our medical, public health, and education experts that returning to school is the right thing to do. I’ve always said we have the best minds in the world right here in Ontario and that together we make the best decisions,” he continued.

“Ultimately, this is our government’s decision, but in light of the foregoing, and the diversity of perspectives on the safety of reopening schools, I am asking for your views on a number of issues.”

Premier Ford’s letter:

Premier of Ontario - Letter to Stakeholder - May 27th

Ford also points to recent COVID-19 modelling released last week, that showed while circumstances are improving across the province, reopening schools – while manageable – could lead to an increase in infections.

That version of Ontario’s modelling noted that if schools were to reopen, they project it would lead to a 6 to 11 percent increase in new daily COVID-19 cases.

“We are expecting new modelling this week that puts the range of new cases associated with school reopening between 2,000 to 4,000 cases by the end of July. This is concerning,” he said.

In addition, many students are not yet vaccinated at all due to a lack of supply, he said.

Dr. David Fisman, physician epidemiologist and member of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, praised the Premier’s letter, saying the goal should be to get as many people vaccinated right now.

“We should focus on vaccination, making schools as safe as we can for September, and figuring out other ways to ease the burden on kids right now with safe outdoor activities,” said Dr. Fisman.

“We should not roll the dice on three weeks of school right now, and risk catastrophe.”

Many other doctors, experts and parents have urged an immediate school reopening amid a sharp decline in cases, saying it’s important for children’s mental health.


Province’s school boards react

On Friday, The Ontario Public School Boards Association (OPSBA) issued a letter of their own, saying schools should be the last to close and the first to open.

“The safety of our students, staff, and school communities is and has always been our top priority. We know the pandemic has had an impact on the mental health and well-being of our children, and as medical experts have said, attending school in-person is crucial to the optimal development of our students,” they wrote.

“With that in mind, we must do all that is required to ensure our schools are as safe as possible for any return.”

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.”

OPSBA letter: 

OPSBA Letter to Premier Ford re Reopening Schools

The medical officers in Toronto and Peel Region say that they were still watching to see if COVID-19 cases dropped further.

The Toronto District School Board said it hadn’t heard from the government about resuming in-person learning as of Wednesday, but schools would be prepared to reopen.

“If we were directed by the ministry to return to in-person learning this school year, we should be able to get up and running relatively quickly – perhaps a few days,” spokesperson Ryan Bird said.

In Peel Region, the top doctor said his health unit was in discussions with the government as it looks at a “provincial-wide decision related to in-person learning.”

“We continue to monitor the numbers in Peel and are optimistic that they are trending in a favourable direction that, if maintained, might support a return to in-person learning,” Dr. Lawrence Loh said in a statement.

Dr. Eileen De Villa, Loh’s counterpart in Toronto, said COVID-19 cases are still “relatively high” in her city but shared optimism that the situation could improve.

“I’d like to actually be able to see what the province makes their decision on and … what they decide to move forward with,” she said.

Both De Villa and Loh ordered schools to close in April due to soaring cases, days ahead of a province-wide decision to move classes online.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said safety is a priority but did not indicate the status of any immediate plans to reopen schools.

COVID-19 cases have dropped since schools were closed and a stay-at-home order was imposed but experts say resuming classes at this stage is not without risk.


Ontario teachers’ unions: Safety must be prioritized

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.

Harvey Bischof with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) said he would support in-person learning in certain areas with lower COVID-19 risk, but he wanted more clarity on any government plan.

“This is astonishing to me that we’re hearing public musings from the chief medical officer of health about reopening schools when there has been no proposed plan (and) there has been absolutely no transparency around the metrics upon which they’re basing this,” Bischof said in an interview.

He said the union sees returning to school, even for a short period of time, as worthwhile for students, but proper planning and consultation is needed.

“You can’t just turn things on a dime again without planning and support,” he said.

Toronto parent Jessica Lyons said she understands the frustration about online classes — her own elementary-aged kids “despise” online learning — but she likely wouldn’t send her children back to class even if schools do reopen before the term finishes at the end of June.

“I think it’s a bad idea,” she said.

Lyons, who is part of the Ontario Parent Action Network advocacy group, said she’s concerned by the heightened risk from COVID-19 variants, the lack of upgrades to safety measures and the fact that teachers and students are not yet fully vaccinated.

With files from the Canadian Press

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