TORONTO — Ontario is still aiming to have all schools reopen for in-person learning by the middle of next week and expects to make a final decision on the issue on Wednesday, the education minister said.
Stephen Lecce said Ontario's chief medical officer of health will provide final school-reopening advice later this week, after which the province will make an announcement.
"The government will provide certainty parents deserve by announcing on Wednesday the dates for reopening," Lecce said on social media.
Lecce's statement came after he was repeatedly questioned on when schools in several regions could reopen physical classrooms. He said earlier that reopening would depend on case rates and local preparedness plans.
Premier Doug Ford had said earlier Monday that while the province was still hoping to reopen schools by Feb. 10, a spike in cases could change that plan.
"That's our goal, Feb. 10," he said. " "If it's not safe we aren't sending them back."
All students began January with online learning as part of a provincial lockdown.
The province has since taken a staggered approach to reopening physical classrooms, starting first with Northern Ontario and rural schools where case rates are lower.
Schools in five hot spots as well as several other regions are still teaching students entirely online and the province previously said they would reopen for in-person learning by Feb. 10.
While case counts across the province have been declining, health officials have warned that new variants of COVID-19 present a risk to containing the pandemic.
Ontario's chief medical officer said the province needs to do more work with public health units before all schools can reopen to in-person learning.
"We don't want transmission in the schools, we want to keep that out," Dr. David Williams said. "So we've asked (local health units) now to put those plans in place."
Dr. Eileen De Villa, Toronto's chief medical officer of health, said her office is in ongoing discussions with the province about how students can return safely to in-person learning.
She also said that Toronto public health is looking into what further enhancements could be put in place to create an even higher standard of safety before schools reopen.
"As soon as we can get our children back to school in a safe manner, in a manner that actually supports their safety and the safety of their teachers and all those that are required to run our schools, that's what we're looking for," De Villa said.
The province also announced Monday it has allocated $341 million of federal funding to school boards to bolster COVID-19 safety.
The funding will be used for a variety of measures including to hire more cleaning staff, buy personal protective equipment, and enhance air filtration in schools.
The province also provided more details on its previously announced plan to introduce asymptomatic school testing across the province.
Ministry officials said Ontario will have the capacity to complete 25,000 lab tests, and 25,000 antigen rapid tests per week, but could not say how long it will take to reach those numbers.
The government also said it will allow university students pursuing teaching degrees to work as substitute teachers this year in an effort to deal with educator shortages due to the pandemic.
The province is making a temporary change to its teacher certification program to allow the students to work in schools.
They must be enrolled in a current program and have successfully completed a portion of it. They must also be scheduled to complete the program by Dec. 31.
The province said the temporary certificate changes will expire at the end of the year.
It hopes the changes will mean up to 2,000 additional substitute teachers will be available for positions across the province.
NDP Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath said the student teacher plan should come second to prioritizing safety, pointing to long-standing calls for classes of 15 or fewer students, proper ventilation and asymptomatic testing.
“I think that creative solutions are always something to consider but I have to say, unless those schools are safe, then nobody should be going into them, and we know that that’s not the case,” Horwath said.
Liberal Leader Stephen Del Duca said the Ford government needs to take action to cap class sizes at 15.
"The first thing we learned in this pandemic was that physical distancing works. Doug Ford’s failure to learn this lesson is simply unacceptable," Del Duca said in a statement.
- with files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter and John Chidley-Hill.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press