Ford’s office approved April letter to parents that in-person learning will return one day before closing schools

Premier Doug Ford’s office approved a letter to parents that suggested schools would remain open for in-class learning after the April break, one day before changing course and closing classrooms indefinitely amid the third wave of COVID-19, emails show.

The letter, which was published on social media on April 11, indicated that students would be returning to “additional layers of protection” following their one-week vacation and reassured parents that both Ford and the chief medical officer of health believed in-class learning was safe.

When the Progressive Conservative Party announced that schools would be closed indefinitely a day later, they were faced with intense backlash from parents and families who were confused as to why the province’s message had changed so quickly.

Internal emails obtained by CTV News Toronto through a Freedom of Information request show that Ford’s office, in addition to the Ministry of Health and Education Minister Stephen Lecce, approved the letter prior to announcing a completely different position a little over 24 hours later.

The letter originated from the Minister of Education’s office on April 8. Emails show that Lecce wanted to “communicate with parents directly ahead of the break” and stressed to staff that the letter needed to be released on April 11 “because the April break has effectively started” and families were looking for an update.

“Advise whomever that the letter is being posted Sunday at 9 a.m. ET,” Lecce said in an email to his staff three days before the letter to parents was posted on social media.

The initial version of the letter written by staff indicated that the province’s two million students would return to the classroom after the break. It also attached a firm start date.

“We are working hard to minimize any disruption for students and April break will continue as planned, from April 12-16, with a return to school on April 19,” the draft letter reads.

Over the course of several days, the letter was “revised” by Lecce, during which time any reference to a specific date was scrubbed from the document – and replaced with a vague promise to return students to the classroom while the stay-at-home order was in place.

“That is why, as confirmed by Premier Ford, schools will remain open throughout the stay-at-home order, because learning is critical to the mental health of our children,“ an edited version of the draft letter read.

While the minister seemed to place urgency on the letter, emails show that Lecce was quickly reminded by a member of his staff that the Premier’s Office “sets the process” on matters related to COVID-19 and that the office had yet to provide its input.

On the morning of April 11, the Premier’s Office sent back the final letter with minor edits, effectively approving its content. An email shows there was also a request to make it “clear” that public health units “reserve the right to close schools based on local circumstances.”

One of the key changes to the letter involved references to the return of in-person learning.

“During the provincial emergency brake, and the provincial stay-at-home order all publicly funded and private elementary and secondary schools will remain open for in-person learning with strict health and safety measures in place, except in those regions where local public health units have directed schools in their areas to pivot to remote learning,” the final version of the letter read.

“As Premier Ford has said many times our priority remains keeping schools safe and open for in-class instruction because learning is critical to the continued development and mental health of our children.”

Remain vigilant this April Break.

Please read and share my letter to parents outlining Ontario’s plan to keep students and staff safe. pic.twitter.com/hd0u9V1ZrH

— Stephen Lecce (@Sflecce) April 11, 2021

The letter released by Lecce was widely interpreted as a guarantee that in-class learning would resume on April 19 after the break, giving parents a sense of confidence that the government’s aim was to return students to the classroom.

Hours after the April 11 letter was posted on social media, sources told CTV News Toronto that a decision had been made to close schools provincewide as cases of COVID-19 continued to grow.

On Apr. 12, the premier announced schools would be closed indefinitely as the province attempted to gain the upper hand on the third wave of the pandemic – an announcement that led to calls for Lecce’s ousting over the contradictory messages to Ontario families.

“The in-fighting between Doug Ford and his education minister is putting our children and education workers at risk, and Lecce should be fired for it," Liberal leader Steven Del Duca said at the time.

When asked about the mixed messaging at the school closure news conference, Ford referenced the fact that variants move rapidly and he wished he could “predict where this variant goes every single day.”

Ivana Yelich, a spokesperson for the Premier’s Office, told CTV News Toronto on Wednesday the government has “responded and acted upon changing data, modelling and a rapidly evolving public health environment” throughout the pandemic.

“In this particular case, in response to fast-rising case numbers and the increasing risks posed by COVID-19 variants, and in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer of Health, our government acted quickly to limit community transmission and protect the well-being of our staff, students and their families.”

That sentiment was echoed by Ford himself on Thursday, when CTV News Toronto asked him about the letter at a news conference.

"I know I addressed this a few times back in April, but I'll address it again," he said. "Back in April, on the worldwide third wave, we were seeing cases of 4,000. I just wasn't prepared to put two million kids back in the classroom."

"I know how hard it was, I talked to hundreds of kids, hundreds of parents, and I know it was difficult...but it ended up being the right decision."

The premier did not mention the letter specifically or explain why his office approved it in the first place.

NDP Education Critic Marit Stiles told CTV News Toronto that the emails illustrate “the chaos and confusion” on how the province has dealt with schools throughout the pandemic.

“It's frankly not all that surprising to me because we did see last minute changes always and just constant confusion in terms of the messaging that students and parents and school boards were receiving,” she said.

“I think it's also indicative of what we've known all along and seen, which is that this is a government that seems to be flying by the seat of their pants when it comes to how to deal with school closures throughout this pandemic.”

The stay-at-home order, which made it illegal for people to leave their homes for non-essential reasons, went into effect on April 8 in Ontario. Schools were not shuttered at this time, despite the fact that medical officers of health in Toronto, Peel Region and Guelph had already ordered them to close due to recent COVID-19 case growth and the challenges involved in contact tracing in school settings.

At the time, Lecce said it was the government’s “promise to keep schools open and to keep them safe.”

Between April 8 and April 11, health officials logged a combined 15,791 cases of COVID-19 in Ontario.