Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government appears poised to keep schools closed for the rest of the academic year, and could begin to reopen the economy earlier than planned, sources say.
No final decision on schools has been made, and Mr. Ford’s cabinet is scheduled to meet on Wednesday to discuss the matter; an announcement is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. Wednesday.
Three sources with knowledge of government deliberations told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Ford is leaning toward keeping schools closed to in-person classes for the remainder of the school year, which ends in June. (The Globe is not identifying the sources because they are not authorized to speak publicly about internal matters.)
The reason, one source said, is to keep the province on track with its reopening framework. The first step – which includes opening patios, allowing non-essential retail stores to open at 15-per-cent capacity and allowing larger outdoor gatherings – is scheduled to start on June 14. But the source said that could happen even earlier, because the province has met its initial vaccination targets and case numbers and hospitalizations are trending downward. The focus now is on vaccinating students and teachers and bringing them back safely in September, the source said, while slowly reopening the economy.
There have been few issues more divisive in the pandemic than keeping schools open to in-person learning. Nova Scotia is reopening all its schools this week after the province said last month that students would learn remotely for the remaining weeks of the academic year. Several areas of Manitoba, including Winnipeg, have moved students to remote learning because of rising COVID-19 infections.
In Ontario, Mr. Ford circulated an open letter last week that asked public-health units, medical experts and educators for their input on whether schools should reopen and said he was seeking a “broad consensus.” Ontario schools have been closed to in-person learning more than any other province.
The general consensus from various stakeholders was that children should return to the classroom for the month of June, albeit in regions where COVID-19 infections are low.
Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table found reopening classrooms could lead to as much as an 11-per-cent increase in infections, which it said was manageable.
“We believe that Ontario can reopen schools safely on a regional basis to mitigate the significant short and long-term harms arising from school closures, while managing the risk of virus transmission in this sector,” the advisory table wrote in its letter to Mr. Ford, which was also signed by various groups, including the Ontario Medical Association, the Hospital for Sick Children and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
Five members of the advisory table recused themselves from the response to the Premier. Among them was David Fisman, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, who has expressed concern on social media about the spread of the variant at the centre of India’s COVID-19 crisis.
Chris Mackie, the Medical Officer of Health for Middlesex-London in Southwestern Ontario, has been advocating for schools to reopen. He said some children are safer from COVID-19 in school, where they wear masks and follow distancing rules.
“There’s a lot of mixing happening with kids. There’s a lot of completely unsupervised stuff where distancing and masking isn’t even on the radar,” Dr. Mackie said. “So for a lot of families, it’s actually higher risk from a COVID-19 perspective for schools to be closed. And those often are the most disadvantaged, most marginalized populations.”
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said on Tuesday that he was concerned about keeping schools closed while reopening parts of the economy. His union supported a regional reopening of schools.
Even a month of being in the classroom could be beneficial for students, especially young children, he said.
“A month feels very long to an elementary school kid.”
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said educators need a few days notice to reopen classrooms. The government closed all schools to in-person learning in mid-April, although students in Thunder Bay and Sudbury have been learning remotely since March.
Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, did not directly answer a question on Tuesday regarding whether the government would reopen schools regionally.
“We will provide the certainty that parents deserve once a decision has been made,” she said in an e-mailed statement.
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