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A student peers through the front door of Thorncliffe Park Public School in Toronto in December 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s regional public health officials are asking the government to prioritize opening schools before lifting other public health restrictions aimed at reducing high levels of COVID-19 infection and hospitalizations across the province.

The chair of the Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health wrote to the provincial health and education ministers asking for deployment of extra measures that would help children get back into classrooms safely.

“Upon careful review and consideration of local indicators, we believe it is possible, and in fact, imperative, that schools begin to open before the reopening of other sectors, as the stay-at-home orders are lifted provincially,” Dr. Paul Roumeliotis’ letter said.

“Safe reopening of all schools in Ontario is essential.”

The letter, dated Friday, cited guidance from Toronto’s SickKids hospital that flagged “harms of prolonged school closures” and recommended daily in-person classrooms be “the last to close and the first to open.”

It also noted a recent paper from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed transmission risk within schools was low, with mask requirements and student cohorting in place.

Schools in several southern Ontario regions with high infection rates, including the Toronto and Windsor areas, have been closed through January, with the province staggering reopenings in rural and northern areas that have fewer cases.

Friday’s letter from the medical officers noted schools have reopened safely already in some regions, and it can be done in others. It recommended measures should be taken to reduce infections among staff, including limiting the number of employees on site and not allowing itinerant teachers to give in-person instruction to multiple groups of students.

The letter also called for enhanced testing and greater capacity for same-day tests across the province.

A statement from Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government “will continue to be guided by leading scientific and pediatric leaders to ensure we keep schools safe.”

“We welcome the support of Medical Officers of Health across Ontario as we work to get all schools open, for all children, in all regions of our province,” Lecce’s statement said.

Ontario’s top doctor said Friday that schools in some regions may stay online until rapid COVID-19 tests can be deployed to monitor the virus.