Top public health officials in Toronto, Peel, York support return to school as early as next week

The medical officers of health for Toronto, Peel Region and York Region say they would support the resumption of in-person learning.

Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health, wrote a letter to Premier Doug Ford Friday stating that she would prefer the return of in-person learning before other COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

This is to allow for further vaccinations that would create conditions for the continuing decline of infection rates, she said.

"Toronto Public Health has resources in place so that where required, staff and students can be tested in a timely manner. At current levels of community transmission, we also have sufficient capacity to conduct timely case and contact management," de Villa wrote.

"The decision whether or not to re-open schools for in-person learning is a complex one. In any instance, Toronto Public Health will be ready to support the direction the province chooses to pursue."

On Thursday, Ford sent a letter to dozens of health experts and stakeholders asking for their input on reopening schools.

In the letter, he raised a number of specific concerns around a return to the classroom in June, including the presence of the B.1.6.1.7 variant that was first detected in India.

Ford also said that his government has been provided with modelling that suggestions daily case counts could rise to between 2,000 and 4,000 by late July if schools are fully reopened.

Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel Region's medical officer of health, said in a statement to CP24 that he would support the return to in-person learning in his jurisdiction, given the improving trends and capacity and strong safety protocols that reduce risk in schools.

York Region Public Health is also strongly encouraging the province to reopen schools as early as Monday.

Dr. Karim Kurji, the region's medical officer of health, said in a letter to Ford that the benefits of in-person learning far outweigh the risks of COVID-19 infection, especially with the lower incidence rates in York and their aggressive immunization effort.

"York Region Public Health feels strongly our pre-determined criteria for school reopening have been met; the risks and harms to children and families of continued school closures outweigh arguments of continued closures," Kurji said.

"York Region Public Health considers re-opening schools low risk and the right thing to do for students, teachers and all education workers."

Schools have been closed for in-person learning since mid-April, but with the province planning to enter the first phase of its reopening plan by June 14, there have been increasing calls to allow students to return to the classroom, if only for a few weeks.

Earlier on Friday, Ford stood behind his decision to ask input on the reopening, even as his chief medical officer of health publicly backs a return to the classroom as early as next week.

Dr. David Williams has been vocal in recent days about his belief that schools can be reopened safely, telling reporters on Thursday that he has already reached out to local medical officers of health to ensure they will have the necessary case and contact management resources in place to support a return to in-person learning.

Ford, however, has so far refused to commit to reopening schools prior to the end of the academic year.

"I know very clearly where Dr. Williams stands, but I want the scientists to weigh in and I want to make sure that the teacher unions weigh in and the other educational workers weigh in," Ford said during a press conference to update the province's vaccine rollout on Friday. "I don't want to rush this. If it takes a couple extra days so be it. This is a massive decision."

Ontario's Science Advisory table has also backed a return to the classroom, noting that an expected six to 11 per cent increase in transmission, as a result, would be "manageable."

But on Friday, Ford indicated that he still has reservations about reopening schools.

"That could equal to thousands of cases," he said, referencing the potential 11 per cent increase in transmission. "Folks, do you want to go backwards again? I don't; I want to look forward. I want to make sure that we are able to get the kids in camps, I want to make sure we have a great September for the kids to go back to school and this (opening schools) could effect our reopening as well."

It should be noted that while Ford has so far refused to commit to reopening schools, a number of top children's hospitals, including SickKids, have repeatedly advocated for a return to the classroom.

The Ontario Public School Boards' Association also sent a letter to Ford on Friday noting that they "share the perspective of the many public health officials who have stated publicly that schools should be the last to close, and first to open."

"We do know that circumstances across the province have changed since mid-April when many schools shuttered. Case numbers continue to decrease while vaccination rates increase, including those for school-aged children," the letter states. "If deemed safe, a return to in-person learning would end school on a positive note for a year that saw many interruptions. Our schools have shown incredible creativity in finding unique learning opportunities to make things work, including outdoor classrooms, and are prepared to continue this effort."

On Friday, Ford did not tip his hat about what his government's final decision might be but said that it is important to be "super cautious" and "make sure all the T's are crossed and I's are dotted" before a potential reopening of schools.

Meanwhile, in a joint statement, the province's four largest education sector unions said that educators have consistently "supported the safe, regional reopening of schools" but believe that the decision on reopening should be left up to local medical officers of health based on the situations in their communities.

The unions also slammed the Ford government for failing to meaningfully consult with stakeholders.