The Ontario government has not revealed its metrics for reopening schools in COVID-19 hot-spot regions, sowing confusion among school-board officials and concerns that insufficient safety measures will be in place when students return to the classroom.
Ontario is the only province that has kept many of its schools closed to in-person learning until at least Feb. 10. In an interview this week, Education Minister Stephen Lecce did not provide specific details on the algorithm used to determine reopening and redirected questions to the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.
“That’s a determination public-health units and leaders will make looking at mobility, youth positivity rates, broader community transmission, a variety of environmental challenges that have really created some risks for schools,” Mr. Lecce said.
A statement from the office of Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams was similarly vague, saying that doctors look at different factors, including “trends in key public health indicators.” It did not answer specific questions on what community transmission or positivity rates should be for schools to reopen.
School-board officials say the lack of transparency on when they could receive the green light to reopen to in-person learning makes it difficult to plan or answer questions from families.
“There’s always been this ‘we want to be a transparent government,’ but that part doesn’t feel very transparent,” said Andréa Grebenc, chair of the Halton District School Board, west of Toronto. “We don’t know what the metric is. We can’t predict. We have no idea.”
Students in northern Ontario are attending class in-person, and the government reopened schools this week in seven southern boards. But schools in the hardest-hit regions, including Toronto and Peel, remain closed and students are learning remotely. Ontario’s largest pediatric hospitals said last week that children need to be back learning in classrooms as soon as possible, emphasizing the need for more robust testing and infection-control strategies.
A report published Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control suggests that schools can safely reopen if proper precautions, such as physical distancing and wearing face coverings, are in place. That assessment was based on a Wisconsin study showing low transmission in schools that take appropriate safety measures, even when the incidence of the virus is high in the community.
Ryan Imgrund, a biostatistician, gathered data from local public-health units in Ontario and found that schools reopened in regions where weekly cases were below 40 per 100,000. It is unclear how the emergence of a new more-contagious variant of the virus will affect schools, he said.
Mr. Lecce said his government has mandated masks for students in Grades 1 to 3, not just those in Grades 4 and up. Several boards, including Toronto and Halton, had already mandated masks for all students in the fall. He said the government has also enhanced screening guidelines for entry into school buildings, which several boards previously had in place. Further, Mr. Lecce said there will be an expansion of testing for students and staff, and the government would provide capacity “for tens of thousands of tests per week” that would be directed by local public-health units.
“The concern noted by the Chief Medical Officer of Health has never been the safety of schools. He’s made it clear, they have been safe … the challenge is community transmission. It is the risk imposed in the community onto our schools,” Mr. Lecce said.
Still, Ms. Grebenc said she is concerned that during this time when thousands of students are learning remotely, not much more has been done by the government to address the safety of students and staff when they return to the classroom.
“It doesn’t feel like there’s been much of a change,” she said of the new measures, many of which were already in place at her board.
Similarly, Norm Di Pasquale, a trustee at the Toronto Catholic District School Board, said the new measures were “insufficient.”
He said that decisions on schools reopening appear to be made “behind a curtain,” leaving families and school boards in the dark.
Marit Stiles, the NDP education critic, said she had written to the government asking for the science and recommendations attached to reopening schools. She has not received a response.
“It worries me a little bit, because we want the government to be clear about what the measures are and what the moment is [when schools reopen]. But it also tells me that the government is not clear themselves on what it’s going to take and what they’re looking for in terms of community metrics in order to reopen schools,” Ms. Stiles said.
With a report from Reuters
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