'I will not take unnecessary risks': Ford will not reopen schools, but will allow outdoor graduations

Schools across Simcoe Muskoka and the province will remain closed until at least the fall, but the government will allow outdoor graduation events this year, Premier Doug Ford announced Wednesday.

Ford said the province would work with school boards and health officials to help students get outside to celebrate with their peers.

"We can do this safely by sticking to our reopening plan," the premier added.

"With the stay-at-home order now lifting today as we approach Stage 1 of the Roadmap to Reopening, school boards can create safe outdoor graduation ceremonies working with their medical officer of health," Education Minister Stephen Lecce added.

Simcoe Muskoka's Catholic and public schools have been closed since the government shuttered schools across the province in mid-April as COVID-19 case counts and ICU admissions surged.

"I will not take unnecessary risks," the premier said about the decision to keep schools closed.

The province had previously said schools would welcome students back before step one of Ontario's reopening plan, set for mid-June.

"At a time when our top priority is putting the third wave behind us so that we can safely enter step one of our Roadmap to Reopen, we can't risk increased cases and potential downstream impacts on hospitals and ICUs," Ford added. "Making this tough decision now will allow kids to safely enjoy camps and outdoor activities this summer and a safe return to school in September."

Ontario's top doctor, along with a series of experts, supported students returning to classrooms for their mental and physical well-being, including Simcoe Muskoka's medical officer of health.

During a live conference Tuesday, Dr. Charles Gardner said children should return to in-person learning with COVID-19 infection rates decreasing. "I stay by my position. It would be best and certainly a good opportunity to open, but ultimately, it's the province's decision."

The health unit opened COVID-19 vaccination appointments to children 12 and older to book their first dose to be fully immunized for the start of the school year in the fall.

"I am strongly encouraging everyone to get a vaccine," Ford added. "Right now, we don't have enough kids vaccinated. We don't have enough teachers vaccinated."

The Pfizer shot is currently the only vaccine approved by Health Canada for children under 18.