It was the news everyone was expecting, and dreading, but on Wednesday afternoon, Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Education Stephen Lecce announced that Ontario’s school children will not be returning to classrooms until September. According to Ford, the growing number of variants and not enough vaccinated teachers and students makes the risks too high even though many in public health have said the opposite.
“Today, I have to announce that schools will not be returning for in class learning until the fall,” Ford said in a press conference streamed from Queen’s Park. “I know this is very difficult news, it was a hard choice to make, but I will not, and I repeat, will not take unnecessary risks with our children right now.”
Last week Ford reached out to 50 different scientists, doctors, and educators for advise about whether or not schools should be re-opened for the last couple of weeks of the 2020/2021 school year. Ford said he wanted consensus on a direction, and even though the majority of responses pushed for re-open, Ford said we was driven by concern about the implications of re-opening schools.
“We know that some of the variants we’re fighting right now are more dangerous for children, it can make younger people very sick, and we also know that until we get more students and teachers vaccinated, outdoor activities are the safest right down,” Ford said. “So we will focus on getting kids outside, getting them to summer camps, day camps and sports outdoor activities as soon as possible. We know these activities are critical to the mental and physical well-being of our kids.”
According to Ford, he was heeding the advice of science table co-chair Dr. Adalsteinn Brown who said that re-opening schools could lead to an increase of six to 11 per cent in the number of new daily COVID-19 cases. The growing prevalence of the B.1.617.2 variant, plus, according to Ford, the continued porousness of the Canadian border, made keeping schools closed the preferred option.
“The one constant in this pandemic has been that we have always erred on the side of caution, caution for our students, their families, and the staff within our schools, caution for every family in this province,” said Lecce. “By remaining cautious and vigilant, we protect our summer, we protect September, and we provide stability and routine to children who have faced dramatic disruption due to this global pandemic.”
During a Q&A with the media, Ford was hammered with questions about why other provinces can re-open schools, and whether he was prioritizing the economy over education. Ford explained that the issues in Ontario were unique because of two million total students in schools, and a population of 15 million people. He also passed the buck to the Federal government.
“The thing that’s frustrating to myself as premier is that this could have been avoided. We have to make the tough decisions because the Federal government refuses, absolutely refuses, to tighten up the borders,” Ford said. “There were 134,000 people coming across our land borders in one week last week, and that’s where we saw the jump. So we need to tighten up the borders, and we need to get to stage one and let the kids have a great summer and get ready for September.”
According to Public Health Ontario, less than 50 of the confirmed COVID-19 cases last week in Ontario we’re connected to travel
Ford said that the government was following the best advice of all public health professionals, that indoors is bad but outdoors is good. To that end, Ford gave Ontario schools the greenlight to hold in-person graduation ceremonies so long as they’re outdoors. A small concession to the kids to allow them to interact with their peers before the end of the school year.
“I want schools to host in-person outdoor graduations, events, and other opportunities for you to meet with your friends and reconnect outside before the end of the year,” Ford told the kids. “We’ll be working with school boards and health officials to make sure we can have outdoor graduation ceremonies for all students, in all grades this summer, rather than just grades eight and 12. It should be for all students.”
As an amuse-bouche following the news about schools, Ford suggested that the re-opening framework could begin in advance of the previously established June 14 commencement of phase one.
“Right now, we’re waiting for Dr. Williams and his team to tell us when we may be ready to do so because I know it’s very important for people in Ontario to get to step one, and the get to step two, as soon as it’s safe to do so,” Ford said. “We want to ensure that we enter into the road map to get kids outside playing team sports, going to day camps, enjoying organized activities this summer, and hanging around with their friends. That’s what we want to get to.”