Ontario students won’t return to in-class learning before September, Premier Doug Ford announced at a news conference Wednesday.
“It was a hard choice to make,” Ford said.
“I don’t want to risk the health of our kids and cutting off their summer.”
On Monday, Ford said his government was reviewing responses to a letter sent last Thursday that solicited advice on reopening schools from a range of expert groups including public health officials and teachers’ unions.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Ford said some experts believed students should be back in class, but they could not promise that kids being back in schools wouldn’t lead to thousands of new COVID-19 cases, especially when variants of concern are considered.
In a news release, the province said recent modelling from the Science Advisory Table showed that if Ontario reopened schools to in-person learning, the province could see an increase in the number of new daily COVID-19 cases by six to 11 per cent.
Ford said he wouldn’t risk spreading variants any further, as they have been driving transmission in the province.
“By remaining cautious and vigilant, we protect our summer. We protect September,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said.
Province hoping for ‘safe and normal’ September return
The province says schools will continue to remain open until the end of June for special education students who cannot be accommodated through remote learning.
Most students in Ontario have been learning remotely since April 19 due to soaring rates of COVID-19 amid the third wave of the pandemic.
Ford said the province is pushing for a “safe and normal” return to school in September. “We’ll use this time to get our teachers and students vaccinated,” the premier said.
The province will also be making upgrades to air systems in schools, Ford said.
‘Kids in the classroom were supposed to come first’
Critics slammed the province’s decision Wednesday. During question period, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath pointed out that Ontario is the only province in Canada without kids in class.
“And there’s a reason for that. It’s not an accident,” she said. “This government walked us right into the third wave, ignoring the advice of experts.
“Kids in the classroom were supposed to come first. That was what was supposed to be the priority.”
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), said in a statement that Ford’s government has failed to manage the pandemic by ignoring stakeholders, including recommendations from the science table.
“This advice included repeated calls for smaller class sizes, improved ventilation, and adequate personal protective equipment for educators,” Hammond said.
“Under false pretenses, Minister Lecce spent nine months insisting schools were safe, without any evidence to confirm this. This government’s utter disregard for the safety of students, educators and other education workers cannot be ignored.”
In a statement, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson called the decision to not reopen schools on a regional basis “deeply disappointing.”
The government is working with school boards on organizing in-person, outdoor graduation ceremonies for all grades, Ford said. The premier did not elaborate on how that would work. Only five people from outside a household are allowed to gather outside right now in Ontario.
“We can do this safely by sticking with our reopening plan,” Ford said.
When asked if COVID-19 vaccinations would be mandatory in schools for the upcoming school year, Ford said he doesn’t believe people should be forced to take them.
“We can’t force anyone to go get a vaccination. We encourage them,” he said.
Kids over 12 now able to book vaccination appointment
The province says that to date, more than 9.36 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Ontario. A plan to accelerate second doses was released last week. To date, the bulk of vaccinations have been first doses, with just 781,163 people fully vaccinated.
Officials say people 12 and over are currently eligible to schedule a vaccine appointment through the provincial booking system and call centre, as well as at select pharmacies administering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Ontario officials expect all youth over the age of 12 who want a vaccine will have a first dose by the end of June, and a second dose by the end of August. All education workers should have a second dose by the week of Aug. 15, the province says, depending on vaccine supply.
The province says emergency child care will continue until the end of June to align with the elementary school year, but before- and after-school programs will remain closed.
Licensed child-care centres can start hosting school-aged kids for full-day programming over the summer months in accordance with provincial health and safety guidance. Similarly, before- and after-school programs that operate as a camp over the summer will be allowed to do so, while following health and safety guidance from the province.