‘These aren’t risks I’m willing to take’: Schools to remain closed until the fall

By Lucas Casaletto, Michael Ranger

The Ford government made its highly-anticipated announcement Wednesday confirming that students will not be back in classrooms before the end of the school year.

Speaking at Queen’s Park and joined by Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Health Minister Christine Elliott, Premier Doug Ford said it just simply isn’t the right time to risk having students and staff assemble inside a classroom.

Ford pointed to the risk of the emerging delta B.1.617 COVID-19 variant first detected in India, which is rapidly growing provincewide and could become the most dominant strain in Ontario.

“The experts couldn’t tell us that returning to in-class learning before more teachers and students are vaccinated won’t lead to thousands and thousands of new cases,” said Ford.

“The experts couldn’t tell us that it couldn’t risk spreading new variants… These aren’t risks I am willing to take.”

Ontario is the only Canadian province with schools currently closed to in-person learning.

Sources told 680 NEWS on Tuesday that Ford and his cabinet were leaning towards keeping schools closed to in-person learning.

After meeting with his cabinet early Wednesday, there was speculation that the province would opt to keep students out of schools until next fall in an effort to reopen the economy ahead of schedule.

Ford hinted at that possibility, saying he’s cautiously optimistic that Ontario could begin to reopen before June 14, which would allow for the return of non-essential retail at limited capacity and outdoor patios.

Schools were closed to in-person learning in mid-April as the province fought a deadly third wave driven by more infectious variants of COVID-19. There are now just over three weeks left in the school year.

“We have done this because safety is our guiding light and principle,” said Minister Lecce.

Ford said he understands kids will be losing out on valued experiences, so he’s asked all school boards to allow for outdoor graduation ceremonies for all grade levels, not just students in grades 8 and 12.

“It should be for all students because we know we must do as much as possible to get people outdoors to enjoy the summer, enjoy the nice weather,” he said.

The decision on schools comes as the provincial stay-at-home order is lifted, allowing for residents to leave the house for non-essential reasons with other pandemic restrictions still in effect.

On Tuesday, Ontario reported its smallest daily increase of COVID-19 cases since before the peak of the second wave.

RELATED: Stay-at-home order lifted provincewide: What’s allowed now?

The steady decrease in infections led the government to unveil its reopening plan last month, with the first of three phases set to take effect in mid-June.

Schools, however, were not part of that plan.

The omission drew criticism from pediatric hospitals and doctors who called for a resumption of in-person learning for the final stretch of the academic year, saying it was crucial to children’s well-being.

President of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Alex Munter says he’s “overwhelmed by sadness” as the province’s many young students are forced to stay at home.

“Ontario kids have been out of school longer than children almost anywhere else in the world,” said Munter on Twitter.

“I am overwhelmed by sadness about all of this. It feels like we adults have let our children down.”

Conversely, infectious disease specialist Dr. David Fisman praised the move by Ford.

“Let’s get outdoor stuff back up and running. Patios, outdoor activities for kids. It’s an aerosol disease: we can do that safely,” wrote Fisman on Twitter.

“Get vaccinated, everyone. We are getting to the finish line.”

Ford sent a note to various health and education stakeholders last week asking for advice on whether it would be safe to reopen for in-person learning.

In it, Ford wrote “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.”

Ford asked seven questions to doctors, scientists, and educators, including whether the B.1.617 COVID-19 variant first discovered in India poses an increased risk to students and education workers.

In response to the open letter issued last week, Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said Saturday they believe schools can reopen safely on a regional basis for in-person learning for the last month of the school year.

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

Ontario’s top doctor and other local medical officials also said they supported reopening schools.

Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health was among many to support Ford’s letter, saying on Friday that Toronto Public Health (TPH) recommends reopening in-person learning before other restrictions are lifted.

RELATED: Ford reportedly looking to shuffle cabinet ahead of next year’s election

Lecce, meanwhile, reiterated that schools are safe from COVID-19.

“The Chief Medical Officer of Health has advised the people of Ontario – and when repeatedly asked about the safety of schools, transmission schools – have suggested that the protections we put in place has kept students and staff safe,” Lecce said.

Opposition politicians have claimed Ford has failed to show leadership by leaving families in the dark for an extended period.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath argued that the reason why schools have remained closed has everything to do with the cuts made to education in this year’s budget.

“Ontario is the only province in Canada with schools still closed. That’s Doug Ford’s fault. It’s the result of his choices.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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