The head of Canada’s largest pediatric hospital believes children in Ontario shouldn’t return to the classroom until educators have received at least one dose of the vaccine and there is low community spread – conditions that would likely mean remote learning for the remaining two months of the academic year.
Earlier this month, the Ontario government closed schools across the province and moved 1.5 million students to remote learning indefinitely, joining the 500,000 who had already opted for online instruction in the fall.
Ronald Cohn, president of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, which has previously advised the government on school reopening, said that the discussion around having students return to classrooms is difficult because COVID-19 infections currently are high, the number of patients in intensive care units has ballooned and the province’s health care system is overburdened. Not only would community transmission need to go down “significantly,” but the adults in those school buildings would need some protection against the virus, he said.
“It would be great if children could go back to school, but the current situation is unfortunately so fragile,” Dr. Cohn said in an interview on Monday.
“Whether we can get to that point in a timeframe that would make it reasonable to have children come back, I just don’t know. And I doubt it, to tell you the truth.”
Even a regional approach to reopening schools, which some parents have called for, could be challenging, Dr. Cohn said. Patients are being transferred to hospitals across the province, including to areas with low community transmission. He said that reopening schools could contribute to increased community transmission, which would pose even more challenges for the health care system.
Although educators and many families called for classrooms in the province to be closed to in-person learning as COVID-19 infections increased in recent months, there is also growing concern about the mental health and social well-being of children whose schooling has been disrupted since last spring.
Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said in a statement on Monday that the “priority in the immediate term is saving our health care system,” and the government is following the advice of its chief medical officer in closing schools.
“We know how critical it is to have children in school for their mental health, well-being and development,” she said. “We continue to see the increased transmissibility of these [variants of concern], and will not take risks in the current context.”
School-board directors and chairs spoke with Mr. Lecce on Monday, though no further details were provided on the metrics needed to reopen schools.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said she’s “hopeful” that students can return before the end of the school year in June.
“With that said, at this time we have no indication from the ministry about any changes to the current circumstances,” Ms. Abraham said.
Tony Pontes, executive director of the Council of Ontario Directors of Education, said that if the province is in a better position by the end of May, “there may still be some value” to reopening schools for the month of June.
“We know the mental-health impacts of remote learning. Even that three weeks of in-person learning can make a significant difference for children under stress,” Mr. Pontes said. However, he added, there would be little value to reopening schools in the middle of June with only days left before they closed for the summer.
Some doctors and educators have called on provincial governments to go beyond thinking about this school year and develop ongoing supports to help students close learning gaps. Last week, the Canadian Paediatric Society sent a letter to various provincial governments, urging officials to develop policies and programs that will support students dealing with the fallout from COVID-19.
Charlotte Moore Hepburn, the organization’s director of medical affairs, said that before the pandemic, there were long wait lists for mental-health and developmental services, as well as school-based assessment and health resources.
“What we are urgently calling for now is for governments to not only respond to this current situation, but to proactively anticipate, plan for and fund the needs we know that will come from this massive disruption,” Dr. Moore Hepburn said.