Epidemiologist urges extended school closures, calls Ontario’s plan ‘catastrophic’

Maleeha Sheikh questions the Ontario education minister on the plan to reopen schools next week. We also hear from critics who say the province is missing key safety measures to keep teachers and students protected.

Infection Control Epidemiologist, Dr. Colin Furness, is calling on Toronto Public Health to defy the province and close schools until January 24th to prevent a potential surge of unvaccinated children being hospitalized.

Furness made the plea in a letter to Toronto Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, that he made public on Friday.

In his letter (posted below), Furness argues that the province’s plan for a return to classes on Wednesday, January 5, is premature and will lead to a “sudden mass infection” that could result in thousands of children being hospitalized.

“Under (Chief Medical Officer of Health) Dr. Moore’s plan, all students attending schools and daycares in Ontario will become exposed to COVID-19 within a few days of opening,” he wrote.

After crunching some numbers, Furness concludes that “cumulatively we could expect up to 2,750 hospitalizations of children under 12 from this wave in Ontario.”

Letter to Toronto Medical Officer of Health by CityNewsToronto on Scribd

But it’s not just that sheer number he’s concerned about. He’s also worried that they will overload the system at the same time.

“Because the opening plan will ensure that these children will become infected within days of each other, most who will require hospitalization, will need it at about the same time,” he said.

“What sounded appalling now seems more like catastrophic.”

To prevent that scenario, Furness is urging public health units and school boards to take matters into their own hands and keep schools closed until January 24. If that doesn’t happen, he believes parents should keep their children home during that time – something he says he’s doing with his own kids.

“Despite the provincial policies for return to in person school next week, there are still two levers left to pull. One is citizen resistance: my own children will not be attending the first 13 school days in January, and if a majority of parents also resist, transmission could be significantly slowed by thinning attendance.

“However, the more important, second lever is action at the level of the public health unit and school board, hence my letter. Either authority could implement a 13 school-day delay in opening primary schools, making Jan. 24 the first day of school.”

Furness says that extra time will allow for the following:

  • Emergency prioritization of 5+ students for first, second, and third shots as appropriate;
  • Emergency prioritization of teachers and other school staff for a third shot;
  • Spreading out the burden of child infection – many would still become infected in the next two weeks through community transmission, but not the entire school-going population;
  • Deferral of close student contact until likely after the Omicron wave has peaked in Ontario;
  • Formulation of a plan to enhance daycare air quality and PPE in lieu of vaccination.


“Finally, when we do open later in January, it is also vital to institute a policy where at least one shot is required for every student to attend in person,” he stressed. “It is becoming apparent that serious COVID-19 has now become a vaccine-preventable disease.”

“We avoid catastrophe and get schools back to normal by recognizing this truth and allowing some time to finish vaccinating the susceptible population instead of mass infecting them.

“These are our children,” he concludes. “We owe them this diligence.”

On Thursday, the province announced that students would return to in-class learning on Wednesday, instead of Monday as originally planned.

Dr. Moore said 3,000 additional HEPA filters would be distributed to school boards, and staff would be provided with N95 masks, among other measures.

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