Ontario boards would be able to resume in-person learning with few days notice

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Several Ontario school boards said Wednesday that they would be able to resume in-person learning with a few days' notice if the government decides to send students back to classrooms for the last month of the academic year.

Pediatric hospitals and doctors have been calling on the government to immediately reopen schools amid a decline in cases, saying in-person learning is crucial to children's well-being.

The province's top doctor said Tuesday that he'd like to see schools reopen as early as next week in some regions. The medical officers in Toronto and Peel Region said, however, that they were still watching to see if COVID-19 cases dropped further.

The Toronto District School Board said it hadn't heard from the government about resuming in-person learning as of Wednesday, but schools would be prepared to reopen.

"If we were directed by the ministry to return to in-person learning this school year, we should be able to get up and running relatively quickly — perhaps a few days," Ryan Bird said.

The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board also indicated a few days of preparation would be needed to resume in-person learning. A spokesman said the board would have to ensure bus drivers are prepared to return, and that buses are ready to run after two months.

The Halton District School Board and Toronto Catholic District School Board both confirmed they would also be able to resume in-person classes if directed to do so.

In Peel Region, the top doctor said his health unit was in discussions with the government as it looks at a "provincial-wide decision related to in-person learning."

"We continue to monitor the numbers in Peel and are optimistic that they are trending in a favourable direction that, if maintained, might support a return to in-person learning," Dr. Lawrence Loh said in a statement.

Dr. Eileen De Villa, Loh's counterpart in Toronto, said COVID-19 cases are still "relatively high" in her city but shared optimism that the situation could improve.

"I'd like to actually be able to see what the province makes their decision on and ... what they decide to move forward with," she said.

Both De Villa and Loh ordered schools to close in April due to soaring cases, days ahead of a provincewide decision to move classes online.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said safety is a priority, but did not indicate the status of any immediate plans to reopen schools.

Meanwhile, Ottawa's top doctor told city council on Wednesday that she considers COVID-19 levels low enough to reopen schools in her city. Dr. Vera Etches referenced the importance of balancing COVID-19 risks with mental health harms.

She suggested teachers could take advantage of the warm weather with outdoor classes, along with other mitigation measures.

COVID-19 cases have dropped since schools were closed and a stay-at-home order was imposed but experts say resuming classes at this stage is not without risk.

Scientists advising the government said last week that schools reopening would be associated with a daily case increase of between six and 11 per cent but that "may be manageable.''

Meanwhile, teachers’ unions repeated calls for stronger safety measures ahead of any possible reopening.

The president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario called for more health and safety supports.

"ETFO firmly believes that in-person instruction is the best experience for students, but it must be done safely, without risk to the health and well-being of students and education workers," Sam Hammond said.

Harvey Bischof with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation said he would support in-person learning in certain areas with lower COVID-19 risk, but he wanted more clarity on any government plan.

"This is astonishing to me that we're hearing public musings from the chief medical officer of health about reopening schools when there has been no proposed plan (and) there has been absolutely no transparency around the metrics upon which they're basing this," Bischof said in an interview.

He said the union sees returning to school, even for a short period of time, as worthwhile for students, but proper planning and consultation is needed.

"You can't just turn things on a dime again without planning and support," he said.

Toronto parent Jessica Lyons said she understands the frustration about online classes -- her own elementary-aged kids "despise" online learning -- but she likely wouldn’t send her children back to class even if schools do reopen before the term finishes at the end of June.

"I think it's a bad idea," she said.

Lyons, who is part of the Ontario Parent Action Network advocacy group, said she’s concerned by the heightened risk from COVID-19 variants, the lack of upgrades to safety measures and the fact that teachers and students are not yet fully vaccinated.

Ontario reported 1,095 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and 23 more deaths linked to the virus.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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