Students in COVID-19 hotspots – Toronto, Peel and York regions – will return to in-class learning on Tuesday, February 16, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced on Wednesday.
The following public health units outside of the Greater Toronto Area will head back to class on February 8:
- Brant County Health Unit
- Chatham-Kent Public Health
- Durham Region Health Department
- Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit
- Halton Region Public Health
- City of Hamilton Public Health Services
- Huron Perth Public Health
- Lambton Public Health
- Niagara Region Public Health
- Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit
- Region of Waterloo Public Health and Emergency Services
- Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health
- Windsor-Essex County Health Unit
“Following the best medical advice, with the clear support of both Ontario’s and the local Medical Officers of Health, we are reopening schools across the province knowing that we have taken additional steps and made additional investments to better protect our students and staff,” said Lecce.
“Nothing is more important than returning kids to school safely because it is crucial for their development, mental health, and future success.”
Lecce said the government wouldn’t hesitate to alter plans if COVID-19 cases begin surging again, adding individual public health units also have the authority to close schools based on local circumstances.
“I want to be clear, if things change … we will not hesitate to act … that’s why we’re gong to monitor the trends to ensure we deliver on our number one priority for our government – keeping schools safe.”
“As kids return to schools, schools will be even safer,” Lecce added, noting the implementation of enhanced screening and testing, as well as mandatory masks for student in Grade One and up.
All students in Ontario began January with online learning as part of a provincial lockdown.
Toronto’s mayor and its officials say they fully support the Ford government’s careful review and subsequent decision to allow kids back for in-person learning.
John Tory and Toronto’s top doctor, Dr. Eileen de Villa, both acknowledged that while any decision made will come with both positive and negative reaction, they say students are better suited inside classrooms.
“I am in full support of the approach taken by premier [Doug] Ford and minister [Stephen] Lecce, including the approach taken with respect to City of Toronto schools, in particular. In-class learning is very important. Kids need the social development they get from going to school while being surrounded by teachers and their peers. We all agree as well that this reopening of schools must happen safely.”
Dr. de Villa, meanwhile, says that on the subject of reopening these schools, she is “of the belief, there is no perfect answer or solution during a pandemic.”
“When schools were closed for months in the first part of the pandemic, it was in large part for the same reason almost everything else was closed, too. We knew very little about COVID-19 – how it is spread, who is vulnerable to it, how it could be treated, and even if vaccines were possible. Over the past year, the body of knowledge has expanded.”
Ontario’s largest teachers’ union said Wednesday that adequate safety measures must be in place to prevent future school closures.
The president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said the government must take “urgent action” to fund additional measures and provide time for school boards to implement them.
“The Ford government has not invested any new provincial money since August,” Sam Hammond said. “They must stop taking credit for federal funding and invest now to avoid contributing to a third wave.”
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said while the Opposition want to sees schools reopen, the government has not demonstrated how it will make them safe.
The province needs to cap class sizes at 15 students, create a comprehensive in-school testing regime, and improve ventilation, she said.
“Don’t just open schools – make them safe to open,” Stiles said.
Romana Siddiqui, a mother of three living in Mississauga, Ont., said it’s some comfort for her that Peel Region is resuming classes a week later than others, allowing more time for cases to decline further.
She said, however, that she’d still like to see more safety measures, such as smaller class sizes.
“We know for our kids, being in a brick-and-mortar school in person, that’s the best in terms of the quality of their education,” Siddiqui said, adding that it’s a difficult call to weigh the benefits of in-person learning with the risks of virus transmission in schools.
“There’s always a push-and-pull. There’s no easy answers.”
Shameela Shakeel, who has three school-aged children, said she wants assurance that the government’s “enhanced safety measures” will be in place by the time classes resume in York Region in two weeks.
“They have to really start to seriously mean it when they say that safety comes first for our kids and educators,” the Newmarket, Ont., parent said.
The decision on schools came as Ontario reported 1,172 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, although officials noted that updates to the provincial case-management system were causing data fluctuations.