Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca is calling on the province to let local public health units decide if schools in their regions should reopen this year as COVID-19 case numbers continue to drop — and at least one regional medical officer of health agrees.
Del Duca told reporters at a virtual news conference on Wednesday that public health units have the information they need to make the decision, they could work with local school boards on the details, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford should allow them to do so.
“Today, I am urging Doug Ford to provide the support to our public health units to give public health units right across Ontario the authority to make the decisions,” Del Duca said.
“I know those public health units will work closely with the respective school boards that they have in their local regions to make the kind of local decisions that will serve the interests of the school system and that will serve the interests, most importantly, of our kids and their parents.”
Del Duca said letting the public health units and school boards make the call is the “most prudent and responsible” approach. Schools in Ontario have been shut to in-person learning since early to mid-April.
The Liberal leader said Ford should consult all organizations in the education system, including those that represent teachers, principals, early childhood educators, school support staff, bus drivers, school boards and trustees, to make plans for the reopening of schools for in-person learning in September.
Del Duca said a “one-size-fits-all” approach by Ford will not work because the government has not shown a willingness to ensure the publicly funded school system is safe and it does not value it.
“I trust the local public health units, the local school boards,” he said. “Let them make the decisions that make the most sense for the families in each of their regions.”
Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said in an email on Wednesday the ministry is working with Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer of health, on the issue. Clark declined to say if there are any current plans to reopen schools this year.
“Our priority is to keep students, staff and families safe. While the chief medical officer of health has confirmed that schools have been safe, we will continue to work with him, with other medical experts and education partners across Ontario on a path forward, as we continue making progress in our battle against COVID-19,” Clark said.
York Region schools could reopen now, medical officer says
Dr. Karim Kurji, medical officer of health for York Region, said the criteria have been met for a safe school reopening this year in his jurisdiction. He said more than 70 per cent of adults in the region have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. As well, daily case counts been dropping, he added.
“Definitely so,” Kurji said in response to a question as to whether schools should reopen locally.
“We are urging those consultations happen on an urgent basis and schools reopen as soon as possible. From York Region’s standpoint, they could reopen any time now,” he said.
“We could take a regional approach. We in York Region are ready for schools to be reopened right away if the processes with the ministries of education and health allow that to be the case.”
Kurji said local medical officers of health have the most data and should be granted the “liberty of deciding” whether schools reopen for in-person learning.
On Tuesday, Williams said he would like to see schools reopen as early as next week in some regions.
Meanwhile, Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, and Dr. Lawrence Loh, de Villa’s counterpart in Peel Region, said they are still waiting to see if COVID-19 case counts drop further in their jurisdictions.
“I am in favour of schools reopening under circumstances that allow them to open safely,” de Villa said.
She said Toronto Public Health will wait for the province to make its decision, but added the circumstances have to be right and safe for children, staff and teachers.
De Villa also cautioned that local medical officers have advice and a “valuable perspective,” but their focus is really public health and not the operation of schools.
In a statement, Loh said: “We continue to monitor the numbers in Peel and are optimistic that they are trending in a favourable direction that, if maintained, might support a return to in-person learning.”
The Toronto District School Board, for its part, said schools could open in short order once a decision is made.
“While we have not received any indication yet from the Ministry of Education with regard to students possibly returning to in-person learning, if we were directed by the Ministry to return to in-person learning this school year, we should be able to get up and running relatively quickly — perhaps a few days,” TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said in an email on Wednesday.