Ontario Premier Doug Ford: Can schools open safely given COVID-19?

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TORONTO — The impact of COVID-19 variants and relatively low rates of vaccinated teachers and students raises serious concerns about reopening schools, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Thursday, as he sought last-minute advice on whether to resume in-person learning for the final month of the academic year.

In an open letter, which sparked criticism the premier was ducking his decision-making responsibility, Ford asked dozens of recipients whether returning to physical classrooms could be done safely.

"Our government understands the benefits of having children learning in class," he said. "At the same time, our top priority is to ensure any decision we make on school reopening is based on sound scientific advice, consensus and considers potential or future risks faced by students and staff."

Ontario schools have been shut since April, when they were the sources of more COVID-19 outbreaks than workplaces or any other location, the premier said. While provincial case counts have fallen significantly in recent weeks, experts project a jump of up to 4,000 cases by the end of July if schools open in June.

The letter – which seeks feedback before 5 p.m. Friday – poses seven COVID-19 safety-related questions for doctors, scientists, public health authorities and teacher unions. It notes a lack of consensus on how, when and whether schools should reopen.

The letter cites a recent British study that a single vaccine dose was only 33 per cent effective against the B.1.617.2 variant first identified in India.

"What makes all this new information concerning is that … only 41 per cent of teachers and education workers are vaccinated compared to 62 per cent of the general adult population in Ontario," Ford wrote.

In addition, many students are not yet vaccinated at all due to a lack of supply, he said.

David Fisman, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist, called Ford's letter spot on.

"It is a very impressive articulation of the issues at hand," said Fisman, a member of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. "My opinion is that the unknown nature of the B1617 threat right now is determinative: We should not roll the dice on three weeks of school right now, and risk catastrophe."

Many other doctors, experts and parents have urged an immediate school reopening amid a sharp decline in cases, saying it's important for children's mental health. Ford acknowledged the concern as he cited safety fears.

The province's chief medical health officer, Dr. David Williams, said he supported a reopening. His regional counterparts — with the exception of the Porcupine health unit and another still on the fence — were on board, he said.

Dr. Lawrence Loh, medical officer of health for hard-hit Peel Region, agreed the COVID-19 situation was looking up.

"With improving trends and capacity and strong safety protocols that reduce risk in schools, we would support a return to in-person learning in our jurisdiction at this time," Loh said.

In urging reopening, Mississauga, Ont., Mayor Bonnie Crombie said teachers, parents and students need clarity quickly.

"Medical officers of health say the time is right to open them," Crombie, said on social media. "We should listen to them."

Teacher unions had no immediate comment but a branch of CUPE Ontario that speaks for 55,000 other education workers said schools can reopen safely with the right measures in place. Those include better ventilation, smaller classes, more physical distancing and testing, and extra staff.

"If the premier can’t make a decision like this at such a critical moment, is it not time for him and his cabinet to resign?" said Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions.

Critics accused Ford of sitting on his hands for many months, creating a last-minute scramble.

"It's the end of May, and just now Mr. Ford is asking health and education experts for feedback?" New Democrat education critic Marit Stiles said.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner accused Ford of "fully abdicating his responsibility" by looking for a consensus.

"Being premier isn’t about being popular," Schreiner said. "It’s about making the tough decisions but Ford continues to punt responsibility when it matters most."

Liberal party leader Steven Del Duca said he hoped Ford would finally listen to the experts but called it "absurd" he had only given them one day to make their recommendation.

— With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2021.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press