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COVID-19: ‘Every indication’ schools will remain open, Ontario education minister says

WATCH ABOVE: As more schools in Ontario shut down due to COVID-19 outbreaks, some front-line physicians are calling for all schools to close. But as Caryn Lieberman reports, the education minister says as of right now, there are no plans for a widespread closure. – Mar 29, 2021

More than 47 schools in Ontario are closed as a result of positive COVID-19 cases, not including the very latest to shut down this week, but Education Minister Stephen Lecce says the Ford government’s mission is to “keep schools open.”

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In an interview with Global News, Lecce said, “I recognize this is difficult for all of us … however, we continue to invest and do everything we can to keep schools open. That is priority number one.”

With the April break just around the corner, Global News asked Minister Lecce if there are plans to close schools following that week off.

“Every indication we have from the chief medical officer of health is that students will continue to go to school. I believe very strongly that kids need to be in school,” he said.

Read more: Ontario school boards struggle to find supply teachers amid rise in absences due to COVID-19

“I just want parents to know that we are firmly on the side of keeping these schools safe and open.”

Despite his comments, two front-line emergency physicians working in the Toronto area are calling for a shutdown.

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“I think now with the numbers … how quickly they’re going up … about now is the time when you should really think about pulling your kids out, especially if you’re in Toronto,” said emergency physician Dr. Kashif Pirzada.

“If you’re in Peel or another hard-hit area, you should probably think about moving your kids out of school right now.”

Pirzada said he would be taking his own children out of school if they were of school age.

“Kids aren’t immune from COVID. That’s another thing we found out over time. There was thinking that they don’t transmit or they don’t get as sick. But, you know, 10 to 15 per cent of them will get some form of long-term symptoms after COVID and about one in 1,000 kids will need ICU care as well,” he explained.

Read more: Education experts warn of COVID-19 pandemic driven ‘crisis’ for students

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Pirzada noted the patients he is treating in the ER are no longer seniors. Many of them are now younger.

“Rather than seeing the older relatives, now we’re seeing the kids’ parents in the ER, so people in their 30s, 40s, 50s are getting it from their kids who are getting it from school or daycares,” he said.

That is something Dr. Lisa Salamon is seeing in the east Toronto emergency room where she works as well.

“We’re seeing kids with COVID and their entire families getting COVID and just the spread has been way faster than we have seen before,” she said.

As a result, Salamon said schools should be shut down.

“I think that schools need to be closed right now … we were hoping to keep them open, it should absolutely be the first thing to open and the last thing to close but right now we’re seeing such an exponential rise of cases of COVID of all ages,” she said.

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Not all physicians are calling for the shutdown. Opinions vary in the medical community.

Read more: COVID-19: 3 more schools closed in Dufferin-Peel Catholic board totaling 10

Over the weekend, a group of physicians and health professionals sent a letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Minister Lecce “to express our concern regarding the serious implications of a potential third prolonged school closure to our patients, our children and communities.”

The letter asks that schools remain open for the duration of the academic year, and in the future, regardless of community rates of COVID-19.

To support its position, the group points out “children commonly have no or only mild symptoms from SARS-CoV-2 … schools have a low likelihood of transmission internally and externally,” and that “school closures negatively impact the physical and mental health of children as well as their social development.”

Shraddha Pai, who works as an independent investigator at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, leads a team of volunteers tracking the spread of COVID-19 in schools and posts findings online at covidschoolscanada.org.

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Pai is also a mother of two who has chosen to keep her children out of school.

COVID-19: Ontario premier Ford expresses frustration regarding timing of vaccine supply – Mar 29, 2021

“This is a different wave than the previous ones because what’s dominating now is these variants of concern that have come into Canada. We’ve got the U.K. variant dominating in Ontario … they are 50 per cent more infectious,” she said.

“Whereas before you might have somebody who brings COVID into the household spread to one or more family member … now, it’s increasingly common to see that when a case comes into the house, everybody in the house gets COVID-19.”

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Read more: Coronavirus: Doctors weigh in on extended school closures in southern Ontario

Pai said she is seeing a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in Ontario schools.

“We are now in Ontario schools up to December-level cases, but we’ve gotten there in half the time,” she said.

Pai said if families can afford to keep their children at home, they should.

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