Hundreds of Ontario physicians have signed a letter sent to Doug Ford’s government urging it to not close schools come January, citing impacts to children’s academic, social, physical and mental health.
“We are a group of physicians who are deeply concerned about the use of provincial school closures to control the spread of COVID-19,” the doctors wrote in a letter directed to Ford, Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Ontario’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore.
“Children and youth have experienced significant harms since March 2020 due to prolonged school closures and we now must prioritize the needs of children and youth.”
Most students are expected to return to school next week following the Christmas break. Ford said on Tuesday that an announcement regarding schools in the province will be coming “in the next couple days.”
The letter, signed by more than 600 doctors, outlined several recommendations the government could do to make schools a safe place to learn as COVID-19 cases continue to surge at unprecedented rates due to the highly contagious Omicron variant.
The doctors are recommending protecting in-school attendance by using a “test-to-stay” strategy.
The strategy, which is also recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would see students, their siblings and teachers remain in the classroom following a close-contact exposure with the use of frequent rapid testing.
The doctors said frequent testing, such as every second day, of school-based contacts has been shown to be the equivalent of self-isolation for controlling COVID-19 transmission.
They also said two Utah-based “test-to-stay” programs implemented over a four-month period had saved more than 100,000 in-person instruction days for nearly 60,000 students.
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The letter also outlined several reasons why children should continue to learn in person despite the current COVID-19 situation in Ontario.
They cited in length the extensive harm for students’ mental health, including an increase in psychiatric illnesses, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and more visits to hospitals for other mental health illnesses.
They also pointed out that there has been little to no COVID-19 transmission occurring in the school setting. They said when school-based transmissions occurred, the number of secondary cases was small.
The baseline risk of COVID-19 to children is lower compared with adults, the doctors wrote as their third reason. Their fourth reason was that although the Omicron variant has been found to be more transmissible, it is not yet found to be more virulent.
“We need to re-write the popular phrase ‘schools should be the last to close and the first to open’ and replace it with ‘schools are an essential service and must remain open,'” the doctors said to conclude the letter.
Global News spoke to one of the doctors who signed the letter, Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng based in Ottawa, who said closing schools due to COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on children.
“We should be at a stage where we figure this out and we really try and keep our kids in school so we reduce the trauma that we’ve implemented to our children on previous waves,” he continued.
“I know the Omicron situation is always evolving, and we want to get as much information as possible, but we need a plan. Full stop. To me it would make sense at this time to have our kids involved in school, have a test-to-stay approach to ensure the safety of our kids and to ensure they’re in class as long as possible.”
— With files from Global News’ Abigail Bimman