Ontario considers keeping schools closed until September, sources say

Schools in Ontario could remain closed to in-person learning for the remainder of the academic year as the provincial government scraps a promise to reopen classrooms before the economy, CTV News Toronto has learned.

Sources say the government's planning and priorities committee made the initial decision on Monday not to reopen schools for the remaining weeks of June, including on a regional basis.

This goes against the advice from the Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, local medical officers of health and the Ontario Science Advisory table. 

Sources say the government is concerned that several public health units would not be able to reopen due to case counts or outbreaks, and reopening schools could drive up transmission in those zones. 

While the decision was made at committee, it still has to be finalized during a cabinet meeting scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, and is subject to change. 

It's unclear when the provincial government will make an announcement on the final decision. 

Health Minister Christine Elliott said Tuesday the issue of reopening schools is being taken "very seriously," but remained tight-lipped on which way the government is leaning.

Elliott said Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce are reviewing guidance that has been provided to them by experts.

Last week, Ford wrote a letter to dozens of medical experts and a handful of education sector unions asking them for "input on the possible safe return to schools" this June.

"They are taking time to review the information they received back to be able to make a decision that is going to be in the best interest of Ontarians and as safe for all children," Elliott said. 

Schools have been closed for in-person learning since mid-April when the province announced they would be closed indefinitely due to skyrocketing COVID-19 transmission in the province.

Ontario is expected to enter the first phase of its reopening plan by June 14 and there have been calls to allow students to return to class before reopening the economy.

Williams previously stated he wants to see children return to the classroom before the economy reopens.

"My position has been always, like our public health measures table and our medical officers of health, that feel that schools should be the last to close and the first to open," Williams said at a news conference last week.

"Ideally, I'd like the schools open before we enter Step 1 of our exit strategy."

Modelling released by health officials in Ontario last month showed that reopening schools would likely result in a six to 11 per cent spike in COVID-19 cases. Experts who presented the modelling deemed that number "manageable" given the benefits of allowing students to return to in-person learning.

The top doctors for Toronto, Peel Region and York Region have also publicly said they would support a resumption of in-person learning before the end of the school year.

Speaking to CTV News Toronto last week, Head of Ontario's Science Table Dr. Peter Juni said schools could be reopened safely on a regional basis along with other outdoor activities, but that may push the reopening of other businesses and patios further into the summer.

When Ford closed schools in April, he said he wants "nothing more than to be able to open the schools up again as soon as possible."

He said the government would keep a "constant eye" on COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalization rates to determine when students resume in-person learning.

The government has never provided specific metrics on where case rates and hospitalizations need to be before reopening schools.

Meanwhile, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the uncertainty over schools had gone on too long.

"The very least that the government can do is be concise and clear and provide kids, educators, education workers, parents, with some information as quickly as possible," she said. "It's been dragging on for far too long already."

She also repeated calls for enhanced safety measures in schools ahead of any reopening.

"We could have had kids in school much more often during this pandemic, but Doug Ford just didn't want to make the investment," she said.