Ontario schools likely to return in September with cautious approach to masking, top doctor says

There may not be high enough levels of immunity to COVID-19 across the province by September for kids to return to school unmasked, Ontario's chief medical officer of health said Tuesday.

His comments came a day after the government's science advisory table released recommendations for COVID-19 protocols in schools when they resume, including loosening rules on masking in low-risk scenarios.

Dr. Kieran Moore said he would define low risk in that context as a community that is seeing fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 people per week.

"It may be that we have a very cautious start in September and then monitor the situation because I don't know that we'll achieve that high community immunity that we need in September," he said.

Roughly 80 per cent of eligible Ontarians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but Moore is hoping for 90 per cent to better protect the people of the province from the highly transmissible Delta variant. He said he would support a regional approach to masking rules in schools, though that may be difficult to implement.

"We've seen across Ontario that the rates of illness can be quite variable and that Delta can suddenly surge, as it has in Grey Bruce and Waterloo or Porcupine and North Bay and then percolate in those communities," he said.

"So in those communities I would probably be, if I was the (local) medical officer of health, advising that masks be worn if school was to return and Delta persists in those communities because it can spread so so quickly from one person to six to 36, etc."

The best thing that people can do to ensure schools can return safely is for as many eligible Ontarians as possible to get vaccinated, Moore said.

The science table recommended masking continue in moderate and high-risk scenarios. Schools should not close for in-person learning except in the most "catastrophic" situations, they said.

Dr. Nisha Thampi, one of the contributors to the report, said they want to minimize disruption to kids' education, and tools such as testing and tracing, and masking are important ways to achieve that.

She emphasized that the report does not recommend ditching masks in September - rather, the low-risk part of the framework is forward-looking to a time when rates and disease burden are very low and community immunity is very high.

"The masking should align with public health guidance for the low-risk scenario," said Thampi, a pediatric infectious diseases physician.

"Some public health units may choose to take a more cautious approach, because at the end of the day masks are one of the easiest measures to adjust throughout the year. But we wanted to acknowledge that this is not an indefinite measure."

Toronto parent Yona Nestel said she doesn't see the city's public health unit dropping its indoor masking rules any time soon, and she is expecting to send her kids, aged 4 and 7, back to school in masks anyway.

"My kids will remain masked for the foreseeable future," she said. "Until they are vaccinated and COVID numbers are in the single digits in Toronto I don't see us removing masks indoors for many months to come."

Nestel also said she supported recommendations from the science table's report that aim to make schools safer by improving ventilation.

Ontario's back-to-school plan is expected to be released in the coming weeks. The NDP said it should have been out already.

"Kids are really struggling with their mental and emotional health," said education critic Marit Stiles. "They so desperately need to get back to school, and back to extracurricular activities -- it should be the top priority for Ontario. So where's the plan?"

Classes were disrupted multiple times over the last year as Ontario moved learning online to contend with surges in COVID-19 infections.

The province reported 127 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and two new deaths.

There were 34 new cases in Toronto, 17 in the Region of Waterloo, 14 in York Region, and 10 each in Peel Region, Grey Bruce and Halton Region. More than 13,500 tests were completed in the previous day.

There are 149 people in intensive care in hospitals due to COVID-related critical illness and 98 patients are on ventilators.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2021.