Toronto not yet ready to consider reopening schools, city's top doctor suggests

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Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's chief medical officer, says a decision to send children back to school should only be made when it's safe for students and the wider community. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's chief medical officer, says a decision to send children back to school should only be made when it's safe for students and the wider community. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Despite encouraging words from public health officials in other regions of Ontario, Toronto's top doctor says there's not yet any reason to expect local schools will reopen before the end of the school year.

"I would like nothing more than to see our children back in in-person learning," said Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health during a Wednesday news conference.

"But that should only happen in conditions where we can ensure that it is appropriate for them to go back."

De Villa's words of caution came just hours after her counterpart in Ottawa, Dr. Vera Etches, said schools in the nation's capital were on a path toward reopening within a matter of weeks.

"It's looking positive to be able to open schools toward the end of May if the rate of COVID continues to come down in our community," Etches said.

Ottawa public health officials and the city's mayor are calling for Ontario to conduct a regional approach to reopening schools, which have been largely closed to in-person learning provincewide since April 19. Toronto Public Health shut down the city's schools on April 6.

Ontario's Ministry of Health has not yet indicated if or when students will be permitted to attend school again, or whether it will consider reopening schools in some regions ahead of others. But local public health units do have the power to close schools under Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act.

All of Ontario has been under a stay-at-home order since April 8, despite the prevalence of new cases varying substantially among different areas of the province.

Children In Toronto head home after their last day of school on Apr. 6, 2021, when Toronto Public Health ordered all public schools to close amidst a surge of COVID-19 cases.
Children In Toronto head home after their last day of school on Apr. 6, 2021, when Toronto Public Health ordered all public schools to close amidst a surge of COVID-19 cases.(Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The last days of scheduled classes at the Toronto District School Board are June 28 for secondary students and June 29 for elementary students.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said students could benefit from "at least a month of in-class learning" if schools are able to reopen around his end-of-May timeline.

Active cases substantially lower in Ottawa

De Villa noted that COVID-19 infection rates in Toronto have been "generally higher" than in Ottawa over recent weeks, a likely factor in that city's suggestion that its schools could safely reopen soon.

According to provincial figures, Toronto currently has 371 active COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, compared to 145 active cases per 100,000 residents in Ottawa.

However, infection rates in both cities have been steadily declining for about three consecutive weeks (Peel Region continues to register by far the largest number of active cases in Ontario, with 517 per 100,000 residents at last count).

When should parents know?

The Ministry of Education has said any decision to reopen schools will come on advice from Dr. David Williams, the province's chief medical officer of health. The province says no such guidance has been provided yet.

"When we get updated advice ... you will know it," Education Minister Stephen Lecce said earlier this month.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said a decision, whether it is to reopen schools at a certain date or to keep them closed until the next school year, is needed soon.

"I think they should have that news as soon as possible, make it as clear as possible, so that people can make their plans," Tory said, though he acknowledged that a public health decision of that magnitude will be complex.

"All of this, even though it's science, it's an imprecise science," Tory added.