Ontario COVID-19 science table believes schools can reopen safely on a regional basis

Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table added its voice to the school reopening debate, saying schools can reopen safely on a regional basis for in-person learning for the last month of the academic year. Maleeha Sheikh with reaction

By Meredith Bond and The Canadian Press

Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table says they believe schools can reopen safely on a regional basis for in-person learning for the last month of school year in response to Premier Doug Ford’s letter.

“Schools can re-open safely on a regional basis, on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, the local Medical Officers of Health, School Districts and health system partners,” read the letter. 

In the science table’s response to Ford, they said “schools should be the last sector to close and the first sector to reopen,” and their modelling suggests the total increase of cases would be small.

The table believes most health units would be able to mitigate and manage the increases in their communities.

Several other stakeholders signed the response to the premier including The Hospital for Sick Children, Children’s Mental Health Ontario, the Ontario Medical Association and Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health (on behalf of all Medical Officers of Health).

Ford sent a letter to various stakeholders Thursday, including the advisory tables, health officials, school boards and teachers, asking for advice on whether it would be safe to reopen for in-person learning.

The deadline for a response to the letter, which posed seven questions, was 5 p.m. on Friday.

The science table also took the opportunity to say this summer would be the ideal time to make schools safer by improving ventilation and vaccinating students.

Ontario should also be looking at developing recovery plans to address “the long-term mental health, health and education problems arising from COVID-19-related school closures,” according to the science table.

The province announced Friday they planned to fully vaccinated youth 12-17 by the start of the school year in September.

Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen De Villa released her response Friday, saying Toronto Public Health (TPH) was in support of resuming in-person learning before any other restrictions are lifted.

RELATED: Ontario three-step reopening plan to begin June 14; golf and tennis to resume Saturday

She said infection rates in schools “broadly mirror” the infection rates in the general population and school-aged children have suffered due to not being in the classroom.

“In this context, a return to in-person learning must be measured against the current levels of infection in the province, the anticipated risks of infections driven by variants of concern, and the timing for restoration of any other activities that will increase interaction between Ontarians of all ages.”

Dr. De Villa recognized the decision to resume in-person learning will be “a complex one” but said TPH would support any direction the province chooses to pursue.

The four major teachers’ unions, who represent the majority of teachers in the province, responded to the letter by saying, “meaningful dialogue requires more than a 32 hours’ notice to respond to questions better suited to those in the medical and public health communities.”

They encouraged Ford to convene an advisory table of education stakeholders in order to address the health and safety needs of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The unions did not make a recommendation, but said the government must defer to local medical officers of health for what’s best for their communities.

The association that represents school boards publicly responded Friday to Ford’s letter, saying that while the decision should be left up to public health experts, there are a number of measures in place allowing boards to reopen safely.

Earlier this week, 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.

RELATED: Ontario’s top doctor wants in-person schooling to resume before provincial reopening

Williams says he has heard from many public health agencies, including those in the hard-hit Toronto area, who want to see schools reopen.

Ford has said he doesn’t want to rely solely on the advice of the province’s top public health official, Dr. David Williams, who believes students should return to the classroom.

“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.”

Dr. de Villa and her counterpart in Peel Region, Dr. Lawrence Loh, ordered schools to close in April due to spiking COVID-19 cases, just days ahead of a province-wide decision to move classes online.

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