Ontario’s education minister is aiming to reassure parents that his province’s school reopening plan is different than Quebec’s, where 47 schools have at least one case of COVID-19 since opening.
Stephen Lecce reacted Saturday to a report from the Quebec government that showed dozens of schools – including preschool, elementary, secondary and adult career centres – reported one or more infections between Aug. 26 and Sept. 3.
Lecce noted that Ontario has mandated masking in classrooms while Quebec has not, and said more than 600 public health nurses will be stationed in schools this fall.
“We have unique differentiators in this province that they do not,” Lecce said of Quebec. “I wouldn’t draw a parallel. Not all things are equal.”
Speaking at an event in Toronto, Lecce urged parents to actively screen their children for virus symptoms before sending them to school.
With just days to go before classes start at some Ontario schools, the Ford government has faced increasing pressure over its COVID-19 back-to-school plan.
School boards, teachers’ unions and some parents have called on the government to mandate smaller class sizes to ensure physical distancing is possible in the classroom – and provide funding to make it happen.
Premier Doug Ford has repeatedly defended the plan, which he said has been put together with the help of medical experts.
Last week, the government released new guidance on how to deal with potential COVID-19 outbreaks in schools.
It emphasizes prevention and at-home screening, while teachers and principals will be asked to isolate any child that develops symptoms at school.
Public health officials will be given discretion to send entire cohorts of students home from school, or potentially close schools, if they feel that is the best way to manage an outbreak.
In an interview with The Canadian Press on Friday, Lecce didn’t rule out taking further action if the situation in schools changes in the coming weeks, adding that “if a challenge arises, we will be decisive.”
But Lecce would not say what form that action could take.
“Week after week we’ve added more levels of protection,” he said. “Our aim is to prevent that type of disruption…. The premier and I have also indicated that we will continue to take action to further improve the safety of our schools based on the advice of the medical community.”
But NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the government has been anything but decisive in its approach to reopening the province’s schools, changing plans regularly and confusing parents and educators alike.
The news out of Quebec will just added to the stress parents are feeling this weekend, Stiles said.
“What I’m hearing over and over is people are very anxious,” she said. “I imagine a lot of people will be talking about this over the Labour Day weekend and maybe revisiting their plans.”
Stiles said Ontario has yet to address key safety concerns about its plan, including the need to physically distance in the classroom.
“Are we as ready as (Quebec)? Is this going to happen here? I really hope not,” she said. “But I do think that the big issue that’s outstanding is the physical distancing part.”
Ontario reported 169 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, with Peel Region, Toronto and Ottawa each reporting dozens of new diagnoses.