TORONTO — Students need to be at school in person for their mental and physical health, Ontario's health minister said Tuesday, amid safety concerns about the planned return to classes next week while access to COVID-19 testing is severely limited.
When asked on Tuesday, Christine Elliott did not name specific health indicators that have improved to support a return to classes next Monday — a date confirmed by the government without an official press release or rationale explaining the decision.
However, Elliott said the government needed the temporary shift to remote learning to implement safety measures like sped-up booster vaccinations for teachers and sending N95 masks to school boards.
"One thing that we did need was extra time," she told a news conference, where she also commented on the importance of school for students' "mental and physical health."
"That is why our government and particularly Minister (Stephen) Lecce, our Minister of Education, have done everything that we can to make our schools safe for students."
Lecce did not speak at Tuesday's press conference, which Elliott called to discuss health-system capacity, and his office did not grant a request for an interview. He was set to hold a press conference Wednesday with the province's top doctor on preparations for the return to school.
Premier Doug Ford pointed to the growing pressure on hospitals and a coming “tsunami” of COVID-19 cases when he announced the temporary shift to online learning on Jan. 3. At that time he said virtual learning would last until at least Jan. 17, depending on health indicators at the time.
Ford also noted that with the highly contagious Omicron variant driving up cases, it would be a challenge to keep schools fully staffed and open.
Since then, the number of patients in hospitals has nearly tripled and the province does not know how many people are actually infected with COVID-19 due to limits on who can access tests.
Newmarket, Ont., parent Marc Mercanti said it was “frustrating” to find out that schools were reopening next week through social media as opposed to from the provincial government.
“There's been no information around what's changed, what’s gotten better (at schools),” he said.
Mercanti said he and his wife are still debating whether they feel safe sending their five-year-old son back to school next week, given a risk of serious illness in their families, lack of testing availability, and the fact that his son hasn’t yet received his second vaccine dose.
“It's tough,” Mercanti said. “Kids should be in school. Absolutely, in-person learning is critical.”
Toronto parent Sandra Huh, who is also co-chair of a group called York Communities for Public Education, said she’s also on the fence about sending her nine-year-old son back to school for similar reasons.
She said she wants to see more HEPA filters, personal protective equipment provided to all students and expanded access to PCR testing to all individuals in schools.
“Do I want my child in in-person school? Absolutely. Do I have concerns about him going back into an unsafe school? Absolutely,” she said.
Teachers' unions also expressed safety concerns about the reopening plan given that the government is not offering PCR tests for students and teachers unless they become symptomatic while at school. Those who develop symptoms at home are asked to isolate and not attend school.
The health ministry has said PCR kits will not be provided to entire cohorts or school populations, though a spokeswoman for Elliott said Lecce's Wednesday announcement would involve plans to "to deploy rapid tests to schools when (students) return."
Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, said she thinks parents should brace themselves "for a lot of interruptions."
"What they've announced so far is not enough," Brown said.
Brown said many teachers want to return to in-person learning, but some are still concerned about measures being taken to prevent the virus from spreading in schools.
Her union and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation are calling for more HEPA filters in schools, reduced class sizes to promote physical distancing, along with COVID-19 testing, tracing and monitoring to ensure a safe return to schools.
"We're almost two years into this pandemic. Why are we still asking for those things? And we need to have testing, we need the rapid antigen testing happening, and the contract tracing to occur."
She also highlighted the need for testing and contact tracing in schools. The province has also stopped reporting outbreaks in schools.
In a written statement issued Tuesday, Lecce said the government has been preparing for the return of in-class learning "by doing as much as we can to improve ventilation, provide high quality PPE and expand access to vaccinations."
He said the province has shipped 9.1 million non-fitted N95 masks for staff and more than four million three-ply masks for students, with more shipments to be sent over the coming weeks and months.
It has also accelerated access to booster shots for education and child-care staff, and is deploying 3,000 more HEPA filter units to school boards, in addition to the existing 70,000 HEPA filter units and other ventilation devices in schools.
Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Foundation, questioned how it is safe to reopen schools when Ontario continues reporting record numbers of COVID-19 patients in hospitals and in intensive care, along with strains on the health-care system.
"We want to be in class, we want to be face to face, but I don't know what's changed since the tsunami that was announced last week," Littlewood said.
Forty-seven per cent of kids aged five to 11 have had at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose and just under four per cent were fully vaccinated with two doses as of Tuesday. Youth aged 12 to 17 had a two-dose vaccination rate of 82 per cent.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Noushin Ziafati and Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press