Premier Doug Ford has announced that Ontario schools won’t reopen to in-person learning until September.
The announcement, which came on Wednesday, June 2, stated all elementary and high schools in Ontario would remain virtual-only for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, with hopes of returning to the classroom in September.
Lambton-Kent District School Board Education Director John Howitt said the school board is “well beyond disappointed” following Premier Doug Ford’s announcement that schools will remain closed for face-to-face learning until September.
The decision contradicts the provincial government’s previous promise to reopen classrooms before the economy, initially set to begin on June 14.
“It was a hard choice to make, but I will not, and I repeat, I will not take unnecessary risks with our children right now,” said Ford.
Ford said he’s waiting for advice from Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams about whether the province can push forward the Step 1 date.
“We’re doing as well as a province can do,” said Ford. “As things are going, we may be able to enter Step 1 safely earlier than June 14. I know it’s very important for people in Ontario to get to step one as soon as it’s safe to do so.”
Howitt said the focus now shifts to finishing the school year strong and dealing with graduation ceremonies. However, Howitt said this, unfortunately, means outdoor graduations are not possible this summer because current COVID-19 restrictions prohibit them. Despite the present obstacles, Howitt said school officials are trying to come up with ways to close out the school year properly.
The Ontario government announced on June 2 that it would allow schools to host outdoor graduations and other events this year, despite not reopening in-person learning until the fall.
Premier Doug Ford argued the plan would allow students to get outdoors to enjoy the summer weather together while still gathering safely.
“We will be working with school boards and health officials to make sure we can have outdoor graduation ceremonies for all students and all grades this summer rather than just grade 8 and 12,” said Ford.
Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education, added school boards can create in-person graduation ceremonies to honour students’ achievement, from kindergarten all the way to grade 12.
However, it remains unclear whether schools will be able to put together small outdoor ceremonies on such short notice.
“Traditional graduations are not possible, even outdoors,” said Howitt. “Based on the reopening guidelines of phase one, I believe it is 10 people outdoors from different households and phase two, which is at minimum 21 days away if we started today (June 3), moves to 25 (people). So traditional graduation ceremonies are not possible.”
However, Howitt said he understands the spirit of the announcement and is exploring ways that when children come to pick up their personal belongings and return school board materials, they can have some sort of closure. He added the board just hasn’t settled on what that is yet.
He said the school year is not over until the end of June, and therefore teachers are still providing a quality education for their students. Howitt is also reminding students, particularly high school students, credits are very important to them in the future in terms of scholarships, post-secondary education, diplomas, apprenticeships, and work-life in general.
Chatham-Kent Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Colby said there’s no denying in-school learning is best because remote learning makes some students uncomfortable and is difficult for families. Colby called the decision to keep schools closed until September “a conflict of priorities.” He said he believes the province was looking for a guarantee that if students returned to school, there wouldn’t be a surge in cases.
Colby noted the circulating variants made the province’s decision very difficult because models showed there could have been an 11 percent surge in cases if students went back to school for the next three weeks.
The region’s top doctor also noted that while it’s important to get the schools safe and ready for the return to class in September, getting all students and teachers fully vaccinated this summer is the most important factor.
“There shouldn’t be any reason why teachers, who have expressed an extreme desire to be fully vaccinated before returning to the classroom, cannot be vaccinated,” said Colby. “We’re hoping to get the vaccination rates very high.”
Colby said based on current vaccine projections, anyone who wants to be vaccinated in Ontario can get both of their doses by the end of August. He added Chatham-Kent set a record regarding the number of people to get vaccinated in a week and expects to break the record again in the upcoming weeks.
Bird Bouchard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News