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Premier Ford sends letter to doctors, scientists seeking opinion on reopening schools

Last Updated May 27, 2021 at 3:52 pm EDT

Ontario Premier Doug Ford arrives at a press conference at Queen's Park on Nov. 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Premier Doug Ford has issued an open letter to educators, scientists, doctors, and unions asking seven key questions in an effort to find a consensus as to whether the province can safely reopen schools for in-person learning.

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.

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?

 

“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.

On Tuesday, 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.

On Thursday, he 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.

Ford cites a recent study from Public Health England by the U.K. 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:

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.

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.

The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board also indicated a few days of preparation would be needed to resume in-person learning.

A spokesman said the board would have to ensure bus drivers are prepared to return, and that buses are ready to run after two months.

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.

Meanwhile, Ottawa’s top doctor told the city council on Wednesday that she considers COVID-19 levels low enough to reopen schools in her city.

Dr. Vera Etches referenced the importance of balancing COVID-19 risks with mental health harms.

She suggested teachers could take advantage of the warm weather with outdoor classes, along with other mitigation measures.

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.

Critics accused Ford of sitting on his hands for many months, creating a last-minute scramble.

“It’s the end of May, and just now Mr. Ford is asking health and education experts for feedback?” New Democrat education critic Marit Stiles said. “Doug Ford needs to stop treating kids’ education as an afterthought.”

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner accused Ford of “fully abdicating his responsibility” by looking for a consensus.

“Being premier isn’t about being popular,” Schreiner said. “It’s about making the tough decisions but Ford continues to punt responsibility when it matters most.”

Liberal party leader Steven Del Duca said he hoped Ford would finally listen to the experts but called it “absurd” he had only given them one day to make their recommendation.

With files from the Canadian Press