The province says virtual learning will remain in place until it can reach a consensus with public health units, teachers' unions and health officials on reopening schools safely — even though Ontario's COVID-19 case counts are trending downward and school-aged children will be eligible for vaccine appointments by the end of the month,
The message came from Premier Doug Ford at a news conference on Thursday alongside Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health.
"On the one hand, we have some doctors saying they want to open the schools. On the other hand, we have the teachers' unions saying we can't do that right now," Ford said.
"We need public health doctors, teachers and labour partners to agree on the best path forward ... And we simply don't have that right now."
Last week, the province announced it will offer online learning for the entirety of the 2021-2022 school year, but made no mention about whether or not students might return to in-person classes this spring.
At Thursday's news conference, Williams said he is in discussions with public health units and the Ministry of Education to determine "when's the best time, the right time" to reopen.
"We want [schools] to open and stay open because we feel it's very important to have our children back in the schools and to maintain the safety record we've had up to now," he said.
In the meantime, the province said it will work to vaccinate as many teachers and students as possible given the expansion of vaccine eligibility to younger Ontarians.
Starting May 31, youths aged 12 to 17 will be eligible to receive their first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, the province announced on Thursday.
Prepare for all scenarios, Ministry of Education says
Meanwhile, in a memo sent home to parents Wednesday night, Canada's largest school board announced it is bringing back the "quadmester" model next school year for its secondary students under recent direction from the Ministry of Education.
Under this model, students with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) take two courses at a time during four separate academic semesters instead of four classes during two semesters.
"We have to make sure that if you're taking X number of classes that students are able to be spaced out ... The bottom line is to reduce that student-to-student contact," said TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird.
In an emailed statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Education said it has asked school boards to "prepare for all scenarios" given the expansion of vaccine eligibility.
"The arrival of a more stable vaccine supply and recent Health Canada approval of vaccinations for youth aged 12-17 will enable more flexibility and allow for a more normal in-class learning experience," the ministry said.
But a change in direction come September would be a challenge, Bird said, citing the preparation already underway to accommodate the schedules of 70 to 80,000 students.
"When you're planning for tens of thousands of students and their course selections, to go from one model to another is not fun. It will be challenging. It will be complex," Bird said.
"We can do it, but it will take some time."
Still many unknowns, doctor says
For infectious disease specialist Dr. Anna Banerji, having kids vaccinated is critical for a safe return to in-person learning.
"Having the kids vaccinated means less outbreaks, less opening and closures, less uncertainty," she said.
While there are still many questions about what ensures a safe reopening of schools, Banerji is hopeful things will be better come the fall.
"It depends on case rate. It depends on the variants," she said.
"If kids get two vaccines and they seem to be responsive to the circulating variants there, then I don't see why we can't start thinking about normalizing in school ... But there's a lot of things between here and there that we don't know."
On Wednesday, Ottawa public health officials and the city's mayor called on Ontario to conduct a regional approach to reopening schools, with the city's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches saying the decline of COVID-19 indicators shows the schools in the nation's capital are on a path toward reopening within a matter of weeks.
On Tuesday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said: 'We want to get kids in school,' but he added that Williams has not yet changed the current set of restrictions forcing in-person classes to close.