Ontario’s COVID-19 science table says the province can reopen schools safely on a regional basis while limiting the risk of further virus transmission.
The new advice comes in response to Premier Doug Ford’s request for input on whether or not the province should reopen schools as virus cases trend downward.
He defended the decision Friday saying he was looking for a general consensus on the issue before making a decision.
Ontario students were moved to remote learning in mid-April.
The table said some regions could reopen based on the advice of local medical officers of health and continued adherence to public health measures.
Ronald Cohn, president and CEO of Toronto’s SickKids hospital told Global News that, “Schools really do play a unique role in our society and should not be grouped together with other sectors when we’re are considering reopening plans.”
Cohn called schools the “essential work of Ontario’s children” and said now is the time to put action behind the words that “schools should be the first to open and the last to close.”
He said the hospital spoke with the science table and members of the children’s healthcare coalition and that they are all in support of the regional reopening approach.
However, there are some who are in opposition of the reopening of schools including Brooks Fallis, a critical care physician in Peel Region and former medical director of critical care at William Osler.
Fallis told Global News that Ontario is in good position right now but that there are still high case and ICU numbers.
He said he advocates for keeping kids online but giving them more outdoor time and “really leveraging that outdoors nice weather for the mental health benefits.”
Fallis said if schools should reopen, it should definitely be a regional approach but that Toronto, Peel and most of the GTA should not reopen.
“These areas have shown themselves to contain hot spot regions where COVID very easily takes off …,” he said, adding, “Why take the gamble when you’re in such a good position, when by the end of summer, we can really be in a good position to open safely in September.”
Fallis said the province should take the summer to come up with a safe reopening plan for September which should include better ventilation and smaller class sizes.
Ontario parents, critics and experts have been calling on resuming in-person learning due to the possibility of detrimental effects on students in regards to their mental health.
The table said reopening would allow schools to re-establish contact with teachers and peers.
Cohn echoed the sentiment, saying the closure of in-person learning has taken a toll on all children but especially those living in “vulnerable conditions.”
He said the hospital is seeing children under “severe distress” pointing to an increase in those suffering from anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and eating disorders as just some examples.
“There are countless other children who are languishing,” Cohn said.
The science table recently said reopening schools could cause COVID-19 case rates to rise between six and 11 per cent. However, it said on Saturday the most public health units believe the increase would be “manageable.”
Cohn added that with the vaccine rollout being accelerated in Ontario, on top of the already “robust” testing and screening that was taking place in schools, that he truly believes they are safe to reopen based on the regional approach.
“I recognize it’s only a few weeks but every day in the life of a child matters.”
—With files from Matthew Bingley and The Canadian PressView link »