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Ontario hasn’t ruled out reopening schools where COVID cases low, but concerns remain
May 12, 2021
Robert Benzie
Kristin Rushowy

The Ontario government has not ruled out reopening schools for in-person classes in June in areas with low COVID rates, but remains concerned about any potential risk involved in doing so, sources say.

With less than two months left in the school year, a growing number of the country’s top pediatric experts say the province should allow students back into class where it’s safe to do so, given the devastating impact the pandemic and resulting social isolation has had on their mental health and well-being.

Sources told the Star that’s not out of the question -- but it will be up to the chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, to make the call.

On Monday, Williams said he too wants to see schools reopen first and would like to do so “as soon as we can,” although the province is now preparing to extend it stay-at-home order until June 2.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Tuesday that she has “always thought it was achievable to get our kids back into schools, but (Premier) Doug Ford hasn’t wanted to spend the money. We know that schools are important for kids, not only academically and pedagogically, but also because it helps with their mental health and socialization skills.

“It would be really great to have kids back in school.”

However, she is calling on the government to first reduce class sizes and expand rapid testing, among other things.

“If he invested the way he should have, our kids wouldn’t have to be out of school for as much time as they have been,” she said Tuesday at Queen’s Park.

The province has provided boards with more than $1.3 billion in additional funding for the pandemic this school year, though that figure includes federal money as well as access to the boards’ own reserves.

“We know how critical it is to have children in school for their mental health, well-being and development,” said Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce.
“Our focus remains on tackling high rates of community transmission, which includes the stay-at-home order, dedicating more vaccines to hot spots, and the need for real action at the border to deny variants from entering our country. With all education workers now eligible for vaccines, we are ensuring every front line worker in our schools and child care settings can get vaccinated.”

She added that “we all want children to return to in-class learning. We will continue to follow the best advice of Dr. Williams on the way forward with a singular focus on protecting families and communities from these variants.”

Ontario teacher unions say while they too want to return to in-person learning, but expect proper measures be put in place.

“The Ford government cannot simply switch schools on and off and hope for the best,” said Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, adding that the province “must ensure that teachers and education workers who need it have access to the vaccine before returning to the classroom.”

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said his union “firmly believes that in-person instruction is the best and most equitable experience for students, but it must be done safely.”

His union is also asking that the government provide teachers and school staff with N95 masks instead of the medical-grade masks currently funded.

All schools were closed by the province for in-person classes in mid-April, indefinitely.