Premier Doug Ford has announced that Ontario schools won’t reopen to in-person learning until September.
Ford made the announcement alongside Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Health Minister Christine Elliott Wednesday afternoon.
“Last week, I wrote to the public health, medical and education experts asking for their opinion on the best path forward and it’s no secret that some of them said kids should be back in school on a regional basis for the last couple weeks of school, but here’s what the experts couldn’t say: They couldn’t tell us that returning to in-class learning before more students and teachers are vaccinated won’t lead to thousands and thousands of new cases,” Ford said.
Ford said that modelling shows “thousands” of new cases would arise as a result of reopening schools before more teachers and students are vaccinated.
The news comes despite Ford and Lecce repeatedly insisting in the past that schools are safe and students should be in class as much as possible.
But they changed their tune after closing classrooms in April, pointing the finger at more contagious variants of COVID-19 that first made their way to Canada in late December and early January.
Of particular concern, Ford said, is the variant that was first discovered in India. That variant, known as Delta or B.1.617, was initially detected in Ontario on April 23.
“This gives me nightmares back … where we were with the U.K. variant, with the loose border restrictions,” Ford said.
Ford said some of variants that the province is battling right now also pose risks to younger people.
“It was a hard choice to make, but I will not … take unnecessary risks with our children right now,” he said.
Students in Ontario have been doing online learning since April 19 as the province faced the peak of the pandemic’s third wave.
COVID-19 cases have dropped off significantly in Ontario in recent weeks with less than 1,000 new cases being reported over each of the past three days.
The seven-day average of new daily cases is now below 1,000 for the first time since early November.
Despite in-person classes not resuming, Ford said he wants schools to host in-person, outdoor graduation events and other opportunities for students to meet with friends and connect outside before the end of the school year.
Ford said his government will be working with school boards and health officials to have outdoor graduation ceremonies for students in every grade this summer.
The schools announcement also comes as Ontario’s stay-at-home order lifts, but most other public health measures remain in place, like the five-person limit on outdoor gatherings and restrictions on in-person retail.
The province is aiming to start reopening the economy later this month with looser rules on businesses and outdoor activities.
Ford said Wednesday that he is “cautiously optimistic” right now and is “so hopeful” that the province may be able to enter step one of reopening earlier than the previously announced date of June 14. The first phase of reopening would allow for, among other things, outdoor gatherings of 10, day camps, outdoor sports for up to 10 people, patios and non-essential retail with capacity restrictions.
Ford said he has repeatedly been told that outdoor activities are safest until more teachers and students are vaccinated.
“That’s why our reopening plan starts with outdoor activities. So we will focus on getting kids outside, getting them to summer camps, day camps, sports — outdoor activities as soon as possible. Activities that we know are critical to the mental and physical well-being of our kids,” he said.
Ford said the government will also be using the time schools are closed to administer more vaccines and continue investing in school ventilation.
“The decisions we make today will help us ensure a safe summer and most importantly a safe and normal return to school in September,” he said.
Some critics accused the premier on Wednesday of prioritizing the economy over schools — the opposite of the approach championed by the province’s top doctor, who has said repeatedly that he believes schools should be the last to close and the first to open during the pandemic.
“Today, Doug Ford chose patios over schools. Patios over people,” Liberal house leader John Fraser said.
The leader of the NDP said Ford failed to prioritize students by not investing in measures like proper ventilation or vaccinating education workers sooner.
“There is a lot that Doug Ford could have done to prioritize our kids, but he just didn’t seem to think that was a priority, and I think that’s pretty shameful,” Andrea Horwath said.
— With files from Gabby Rodrigues and The Canadian Press