Return to in-person schooling in doubt as Omicron cases spike across Ontario

Just days before students are set to return to the classroom in Ontario, the province’s back-to-school plan is clouded with uncertainty and critics are calling for more details.

Most schools are scheduled to reopen on Monday, but with a surge in cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, whether students will return to in-person learning remains to be seen.

On Tuesday, Premier Doug Ford said cabinet ministers will meet soon to make a decision.

“I know the minister [of health] has been sitting down at the table along with the minister of education … and we will be having an announcement in the next couple of days,” Ford said. “But we just want to see how things go and obviously speak to the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. [Kieran] Moore.”

Waiting for that decision — there were no announcements on Wednesday from the premier or his top ministers — has some concerned that parents will be left scrambling to prepare for a transition from in-person to virtual instruction.

“It’s a problem if schools move to online and it’s a problem we don’t know,” Gabrielle Brankston, a mother of three school-aged children who is also is a PhD candidate in epidemiology at the University of Guelph, said in an interview on CBC’s Metro Morning.

“Aside from the fact that my own kids don’t want this online learning again, I worry about the equity issues. I worry about the single parent who can’t work from home and they have to … sort out child care and online learning with really short notice.”

Brankston said her kids, aged five, 11 and 13, felt disengaged from online learning when schools closed last year, but she worries about sending them back with community transmission so high.

Some doctors call for open schools

Meanwhile, some doctors are calling on the Ontario government to keep schools open.

“There’s nothing inherent in the school institution that makes it more dangerous, more risky for kids, more risky for teachers or for households,” said Dr. Alanna Golden, a primary care physician in Toronto.

Golden organized an open letter signed by more than 500 doctors from a variety of medical fields, including psychiatry, pediatrics, surgery and others.

WATCH | Why one expert says Ontario needs stricter measures to slow Omicron: 

Stricter COVID-19 measures needed in Ontario to reduce Omicron spread, says expert

Epidemiologist Dr. Peter Jüni hopes to see the Ontario government introduce stronger COVID-19 restrictions to fight the spread of the Omicron variant. ‘The situation we are in is challenging,’ he says. 6:52

The signatories represent about two per cent of all physicians in the province. According to the Canadian Medical Association, as of 2019, there were some 30,492 physicians in Ontario, 14,962 of whom practise family medicine and another 15,528 specialists.

The letter argues that there has been “little to no” transmission of COVID-19 in schools — a claim that’s disputed by some epidemiologists — and that closures are too harmful to the health of children.

In the letter, the doctors advocate a “test to stay” approach where students and teachers could undergo frequent rapid testing to remain in the classroom, even if they are a close contact with someone who has COVID-19.

Difficult to prove extent of school transmission: epidemiologist

The letter was criticized by many who are concerned about safety in Ontario schools.

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, countered that it’s “magical thinking” to say there is no transmission in schools. He said a lack of contact tracing data makes it hard to definitely prove the extent of school transmission but that he’s seen plenty of evidence of it.

Furness said in order for schools to be safe, they would need a supply of N95 masks for every teacher, giant inventories of rapid tests, vaccine mandates for students and teachers and HEPA air filters in every classroom and public space where people congregate.

“It’s not possible by Monday,” he said.

Demands for clarity

Opposition leaders on Wednesday called for more clarity from the Ford government regarding its back-to-school plan.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said it’s “ridiculous” that families still don’t know whether classes will resume in a few days and that the government should have used the holiday period to make schools safer with plans for regular testing, better masks and improved ventilation. 

Speaking at a virtual news conference, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said that the government hasn’t taken enough action to make schools safer after closing them for long periods of time earlier in the pandemic.

He called on Ford to consult with families and experts on the best course of action.

“If that ultimately means that we have to delay the reopening of schools by a few days, or a week or two, then I’m comfortable with that,” he said.

“But … it will be a failure of epic proportions for Doug Ford to simply say, ‘We’re going to delay schools by a day or a week or two weeks or a month,’ and then do nothing else to make the schools better and safer for our kids and our workers.”

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner accused Ford of leaving parents and students “in the dark” about the return to school.

“It’s infuriating. We have the tools to make schools safer. But the premier has turned a blind eye,” Schreiner said in a statement.

Ontario committed to keeping schools safe: education minister

In a statement, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government is committed to protecting students, staff and families but didn’t give a specific date for the decision on schools opening next week.

“Every step of the way, we have implemented the advice of the chief medical officer of health, including improving ventilation in every school, deploying 70,000 portable HEPA units, high-quality masks, thousands of student vaccine pop-up clinics, along with expanded testing options and more staff hired to support safer schools,” the statement from Caitlin Clark said.

“Our government proactively deployed take-home PCR tests to all schools and 11 million rapid antigen tests directly to all students learning in schools — the only province to do both — part of our ongoing commitment to protect students, staff and families.”

Whether or not Ontario students will return to in-person learning after the holiday break is uncertain, as the Omicron variant drives community transmission of COVID-19 to new heights. A kindergarten class in Toronto is pictured here on Feb. 25, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The uncertainty around the situation in Ontario comes as some provinces make plans to delay their school returns or move online.

Quebec and Nova Scotia have delayed the return to school until at least Jan. 10, and schools in Newfoundland and Labrador will be going virtual for the first week of January, with the situation to be evaluated weekly.

Late Wednesday afternoon, B.C. announced a phased return to school for students in K-12, with only children of essential workers allowed to resume in-class learning for the first scheduled week back.