TORONTO – Millions of Ontario students could return to schools this September if it’s safe to do so, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Thursday, acknowledging that shrinking COVID-19 case counts might make the resumption of in-class learning possible.
Lecce said during the province’s daily pandemic briefing that since the government announced its multi-pronged school reopening plan last month, COVID-19 numbers have declined, prompting a shift in thinking.
The shift comes weeks after the province told school boards to prepare for an array of options, including a return to regular classroom learning, online learning or a combination of the two.
“The preference of the government continues to be everyday, day-to-day, conventional in-class delivery,” Lecce said.
“But the prerequisite has to be safety.”
Schools across the province have been closed since March 13, when the government moved to shut down much of the province to address the spread of COVID-19.
Premier Doug Ford said last month that with different areas of the province at different stages of reopening, the same should apply to school boards, so there won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach in schools.
Lecce said at the time he expected all students to start September with a “blended” model that would see no more than 15 students in class at a time, attending on alternating days or weeks.
He said Thursday that while the government wants to have all students in class, health officials must approve.
While cases appear to be on the decline across Ontario, he added, the province must be prepared to respond to any potential spike in the fall.
“Over the past three weeks since we made that announcement, we’ve seen a significant reduction in the amount of cases of COVID in Ontario,” Lecce said. “The reason why we have a plug-and-play scenario of three different plans is because we need to be ready because we do not know what will happen in August.”
Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, said he understands the desire of working parents to have a definitive answer on schools for September.
But it’s hard to know where the province’s COVID-19 case count will be next month, he said.
“If we’re going to go with one scenario … how would that be done in such a way that we would be convinced it was containable and safe, and at the same time, reassure parents, students and teachers?” he said.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Christine Elliott said 86 of the province’s 170 new cases reported Thursday were among temporary foreign workers in the Windsor-Essex region.
While the local health unit’s numbers differed, their statistics showed that more than 100 workers have tested positive for the virus over the last week. The workers are all from farms with existing outbreaks, the local medical officer of health said Thursday.
The health unit said as many as 300 agri-food workers are in isolation in local hotels, though not all have tested positive.
Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald, whose community was held back from progressing to Stage 2 of reopening until recently because of the farm outbreaks, said she would like to see on-farm testing in the area move faster.
“Ideally, it would happen in a matter of a few weeks. But I know it won’t be that,” she said.
MacDonald said she is optimistic about efforts to contain the spread of the virus locally now that a team from Emergency Management Ontario has arrived in the region to co-ordinate the response.
But the mayor cautioned against assuming the problem has been dealt with simply because Kingsville and Leamington, Ont., have been moved ahead and reopened some local businesses.
“We’re making progress,” she said. “But going to Stage 2 does not mean end of story at all, by any stretch.”
In addition to the new cases, Ontario reported three new deaths due to the novel coronavirus on Thursday.
The total number of cases now stands at 36,348, which includes 31,977 marked as resolved and 2,703 deaths.
Also on Thursday, the province extended its emergency orders for the COVID-19 pandemic until July 22.
Premier Doug Ford said the extension will help protect vulnerable people and support front-line workers as the economy continues to reopen.
Some of the measures will make it easier for public health units to redeploy staff for contact-tracing efforts and ease restrictions for staffing at long-term care homes.