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A grade six class room at Hunter's Glen Junior Public School, which is part of the Toronto District School Board, during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Sept. 14, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s top doctor said Thursday that all the public health units in the Greater Toronto Area are prepared for students and teachers to return to their classrooms for the last month of the academic year, as the provincial government continues to grapple with the decision of whether to reopen schools.

With time running out for a decision, Premier Doug Ford on Thursday circulated an open letter to more than 50 public health, medical and education experts, seeking their input and calling for a “broad consensus” on whether schools should reopen. An announcement is expected by June 2, when the province’s stay-at-home order lifts, though the provincial government could leave the decision to public health units.

In-class learning has been closed since April.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams said in a news briefing Thursday that he’s had discussions with medical officers of health across the province, and all the health units in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA) have said they’re prepared for schools to reopen and have the necessary capacity to trace contacts, test students and staff, and screen them. Toronto, Peel and York are among the regions with the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the province.

“I’ve been supporting opening schools for in-class attendance,” Dr. Williams said in the briefing. “Our numbers have dropped back down, and our case and contact management has improved on the public health side. So we are assessing that with our medical officers of health to see if they are prepared to open.”

Dr. Williams said an unnamed health unit is unsure about reopening, but the only officer who has said definitively that schools should not reopen in their area is Lianne Catton, medical officer of health for the Porcupine Health Unit in Timmins. Dr. Williams said the region has seen a “huge amount of cases” in the community, superseding even Peel in its cases per 100,000.

Peel Region’s Medical Officer of Health Lawrence Loh expressed support Thursday for returning to in-person learning in the area, as did York Region’s Medical Officer of Health Karim Kurji.

“Local Medical Officers of Health need to take responsibility for decisions they make in their jurisdictions, they have the most data and pulse on the situation and I suggest we be given the liberty of deciding whether schools in our jurisdictions are safe to reopen,” Dr. Kurji said in an e-mailed statement. “However, as it stands, the province will make the final decision on when schools can reopen and York Region will align itself with provincial guidance.”

Dr. Kurji added that he recognized that there may be regions where the “conditions might not be right to reopen schools,” and suggested a regional-based reopening plan.

In a news briefing Thursday, Chris Mackie, medical officer of health for the Middlesex-London Health Unit, emphasized his support of reopening local schools. He said he didn’t believe that a return to in-person learning would have a large impact on London’s COVID-19 numbers, and planned to respond to the Premier’s open letter by Friday.

Dr. Mackie also called the impact school closings have had on children and families “a crisis,” adding that in-person learning is “incredibly important” for both students’ academic success and well-being.

Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health Vera Etches told Ottawa City Council on Wednesday that the number of COVID-19 cases were low enough for students and staff to return to the classroom. She added that masks, screening, opening windows and doors to increase ventilation and outdoor instruction were among the many ways to decrease the risk of transmission in schools even further.

Despite the broad support among medical officers of health, other medical experts expressed concerns that a return to in-person learning would increase the province’s COVID-19 numbers.

Brooks Fallis, a critical care physician and the former director of critical care at the William Osler Health System, said in a text that he believes reopening schools will increase community case numbers, adding that the province’s ICUs are already stressed with more than 600 COVID-19 patients, which is more than there were during the height of the second wave.

Dr. Fallis also expressed concern over the variant that is central to India’s COVID-19 crisis, and suggested that schools only reopen after adults get their second vaccine dose.

“By keeping schools online for 3 more weeks we get into summer and a fantastic chance to get all adults 2 doses of vaccine,” Dr. Fallis said. “We can also use the summer time to make schools safer by improving ventilation.”

David Fisman, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, also expressed concern about the variant in a tweet Thursday. But he applauded the Premier for his open letter, adding that it’s important to “have everyone put their cards on the table.”

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