The Ford government's announcement of its Stage 3 reopening measures has ramped up calls from Ontario parents, educators and public health experts for a plan to get kids back to school full-time come September.
Much of the heightened attention stems from the government's decision to ease COVID-19 restrictions on bars, allowing them to resume serving customers indoors starting Friday in most regions — and likely across Ontario by the end of the month — with some physical distancing rules in place.
It's brought criticism that the province appears more focused on reopening places to drink alcohol than on places for kids to learn. It's a criticism that Premier Doug Ford rejects.
"You're talking to a guy that doesn't even drink," said Ford during a news conference Tuesday in Cambridge, Ont. A committed teetotaller, Ford said reopening bars is the last thing he's worried about.
"I'm worried about the businesses that own the bars."
Ford's comments don't satisfy Bronwen Alsop, a Toronto mother of two who says she's frustrated at the province's approach.
"I'm completely lost on how to plan ahead," Alsop said in an interview Tuesday. "This is something that [provincial officials] need to work on now — having a full, well-thought-out plan of how they can ensure that our children have five full days a week safely."
The uncertainty over what school will look like in September has been fuelled by what some critics have described as unclear and inconsistent messaging from the government.
In mid-June, Education Minister Stephen Lecce told school boards to make plans for three different models of instruction for the fall:
Full-time in-class teaching with COVID-19 prevention measures in place.
Full-time remote learning.
A hybrid that would see half the school population in class each day and half learning online at home.
Lecce then told boards he expected they will start the school year with the hybrid model. The government has also said each school board will decide which model to use in consultation with public health units based on the local risk of infection at the time.
In recent days, Lecce and Ford have indicated they prefer to see kids in class full-time.
"In order to be responsive to the risk ... we have to plan for all three circumstances," Lecce told the legislature on Tuesday. "The preference is conventional day-to-day delivery."
"We have to be prepared for all scenarios," Ford said Tuesday. "But our goal is to get every single child back in the classroom."
Providing all Ontario students with full-time in-class instruction in the fall with measures in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission "needs to be our top priority," said Amy Greer, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Guelph.
"If we want students to be able to come back to school full-time, we need to be able to spread them out," Greer said in an interview with CBC News.
"We can't do that in our current school infrastructure. It would require additional resources. It will require more space."
To make that happen, Greer says the government must provide more support and better guidance to Ontario's 72 school boards. "It doesn't really make a lot of sense for every individual school board in the province to be trying to reinvent the wheel," she said.
It would have been best for the province to start the process of consulting experts, educators and parents back in March, Greer said, adding that the next best time to do so is now.
While Greer and other experts say the return to school is not without risk, there are ways to make students, teachers and staff as safe as possible. They say one of the keys is ensuring a low level of spread of COVID-19 in the community.
Some public health experts are concerned the reopening of bars this month could lead to a sharp increase in infections next month, jeopardizing the return to school.
To achieve the goal of getting kids back in class five days a week, schools need to be made into safe, controlled environments, said Dr. Michael Warner, medical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto.
"There are ways that we can make schools much safer, just like hospitals had to be made extremely safe despite being overrun with COVID," said Warner in an interview with CBC News.
He's advocating for making each school into what he calls a "mega-bubble." While children and their teachers would have increased contact with each other in attending school full-time, they would have little contact with people outside their school and immediate family.
"If you limit the social circle of each individual who attends the school, it means that if there's an outbreak, it becomes much easier to contact trace that outbreak and reduce the impact of it on the greater community," said Warner.
The hybrid model of part-time classes "could actually be more dangerous," Warner added. Full-time school "may actually be much safer than having kids out of school two or three days per week where their social circles are much less controlled."
At Queen's Park, where the legislature is due to adjourn for the summer next week, the opposition parties are pouncing on the government over the schools issue.
For kids to be able to return to class full-time, school boards need more funding to hire extra staff, purchase protective equipment and obtain extra space, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"It's this government's obligation to actually put a functioning workable plan together for parents and kids for the fall, a safe plan, and that's going to mean investment," Horwath said in question period on Tuesday.
"Parents are really worried that this government is forcing them to choose between their jobs and their livelihoods or their children's education."
The government has "no semblance of a plan" and that has parents deeply worried, said Liberal MPP John Fraser.
"The single most important thing we can do for our economy and for families is to ensure that our children are able to go to school full-time this fall," Fraser told a news conference Tuesday.
"This government needs to step up and make a plan right now."
"It is unacceptable that seven weeks out from the start of the school year, parents, students and educators remain in the dark," said Green Leader Mike Schreiner in a statement.
"The government should be putting the pieces in place right now to get ready for a return to class in September, including hiring more teachers and support staff."