Ottawa's medical officer of health says children deserve schools that remain open

In a statement posted on Ottawa Public Health's website Sunday, the city's medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said children and youth deserve the benefits offered by a return to in-class learning. (CBC - image credit)
In a statement posted on Ottawa Public Health's website Sunday, the city's medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said children and youth deserve the benefits offered by a return to in-class learning. (CBC - image credit)

Ottawa's medical officer of health says she supports schools reopening this week, even as COVID-19 case numbers, driven by the Omicron variant, continue to surge.

But Dr. Vera Etches says she's also in talks with the Ontario government about the "urgent need to pause other activities to keep schools the priority."

Late last week, the province announced it was pushing the start date back for the post-holiday return to class by two days, to Wednesday.

"While I am expecting further guidance from the province about school reopening and measures to limit transmission in the community, I am currently in support of schools returning," Etches wrote in a statement posted on Ottawa Public Health's website on Sunday.

"I have evaluated the evidence and recommendations from my health-care colleagues that being in school is what is best for children, youth, families and the health of our community overall."

Schools aren't driving pandemic: Etches

Throughout the pandemic, Etches has been a vocal proponent for schools being the last to close and first to reopen.

In Sunday's statement, she wrote that data suggests that schools aren't a key driver of the pandemic and that, in December, COVID-19 rates in Ottawa grew much faster in the general community than within schools.

Moreover, COVID-19 was often introduced into educational settings from sports or social activities outside the school, she said, which is why she'd like to see the province bring in other restrictions rather than delay schools reopening.

"Some have suggested keeping schools closed until all children and youth are fully immunized," she said.

"Unfortunately, with an [eight]-week interval between doses and 61 [per cent] of children 5-11 immunized with one dose at this time, that timeline would mean too much missed school that causes known harms."

In her letter, Etches also emphasized that closing schools could lead to an increase in indoor gatherings as parents find ways to cope without the layers of protection that are in place in classrooms to slow the spread of the virus.

Children learning from home also create stresses on parents and guardians and problems for children's educational and social development, as well as mental health, she said.

Instead of closing schools, Etches recommends students limit their contacts and high-risk activities, stay home if sick or if someone in their household is sick, and for all students to keep wearing masks whenever possible, including kindergarteners.

"At the population level, my current recommendation is that children and youth deserve the health benefits of schools being open next week. Schools provide students with essential supports for learning and social development," she said.

"This is not a decision I take lightly. It is supported by our child health-care partners across the province."

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