Ottawa and eastern Ontario schools will not reopen for in-person learning in June
Ottawa students won’t return to classrooms until September, the province has announced.
Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday that schools across Ontario won’t reopen for in-person learning for the final month of the school year. Ford told reporters the move to keep schools closed will protect families from the B.1.617 COVID variant and allow for higher rates of vaccination of students, staff and families.
"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," said Ford in a statement. "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."
In a statement, Ottawa mayor Jim Watson called the news "deeply disappointing."
"This decision was made despite the advice of local public health units, including Ottawa Public Health, CHEO, medical experts and the Science Advisory Table," he said.
"The last 15 months have been challenging for education staff, parents, kids and caregivers. There is no doubt today's news will make the next few weeks even harder."
On Twitter, CHEO President and CEO Alex Munter said he's saddened that schools will remain closed until the fall.
"Ontario kids have been out of school longer than children almost anywhere else in the world," said Munter. "I am overwhelmed by sadness by all of this. It feels like we adults have let our children down."
Schools have been closed for in-person learning since the start of the delayed spring break in April, as COVID-19 rates increased to record levels. Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, elementary students in Ottawa have lost 115 days of in-person learning.
Ottawa Carleton District School Board trustee Mark Fisher says he's "beyond mad" at the province's decision to keep schools closed.
"When it comes to our students, Ontario's future, the provincial government, time and again, has got it wrong with respect, prioritizing student well-being and learning during the pandemic," said Fisher on Twitter.
"These are my kids. They're hurt. They're frustrated. They're crying. They want to be back in school, in front of educators and their peers. They want to learn. How dare you suggest an earlier reopening of the Ontario economy if you can't even manage to get schools open."
Eastern Ontario's medical officer of health says Ontario should have proceeded with a regional approach to reopening schools this month, with a chance to salvage the final three weeks of the school year for in-person learning.
"It's very a difficult decision," said Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, during an interview on Newstalk 580 CFRA's The Morning Rush with Bill Carroll.
"I still think that the buts are manageable. I think that still there was a chance that we could have salvaged three-four weeks, but I do recognize that it's a hard decision."
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, the Ontario Science Advisory Table and local medical officers of health recommended reopening schools for in-person learning. One epidemiologist on the Ontario Science Advisory Table disagreed with the guidance, saying gambling on reopening schools is not worth it.
Roumeliotis notes there is a consensus among many organizations that schools should reopen, but Ontario is looking at finding a balance between opening schools and opening the economy later this month.
"I think the compromise would have been at least look at a regional level, then you could decide at the local level," said Roumeliotis Wednesday morning.
"School boards would play a role and say, 'Yeah, you know what it makes sense that elementary would open and high schools wouldn't.' I think it should have been left at the regional level, but we'll see what happens."
The Ontario Science Advisory Table backed a return to the classroom, nothing that an expected six to 11 per cent increase in transmission, as a result of opening schools, would be "manageable."
"The return to school doesn't mean that infections are going to occur in the schools, it means that the associated mobility with kids going back to school and parents leaving their home and so on, might cause a bit of an increase in infections," said Roumeliotis.
Carroll asked Dr. Roumeliotis if Ontario could reopen schools this week, and still enter Step 1 of Ontario's Roadmap to Reopen plan in a week or two, which includes opening non-essential businesses and restaurant patios.
"Right now, we're not opening anything else, so now's a great time to do it anyway. We're not opening anything else until the next couple of weeks. The fear is that opening schools would delay that, I don't believe that can happen," said Dr. Roumeliotis.
"I believe that with the precautions that are in place, with that the way our numbers are going, with the vaccination rates going higher than expected, with those I don't think that it would have made a dent or affected the other reopening that's scheduled to take place at Step 1."
ETCHES ISSUES CALL TO ACTION FOR OTTAWA RESIDENTS
Ottawa medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches acknowledges the school closure will impact the mental health of many in the community, and it's time to plan for in-person learning in the fall.
"We know from local surveys and the health service providers that have been giving us update on whose accessing services that the school closures have had a pretty negative impact on children, and parents, and caregivers' mental health," said Dr. Etches. "I think this news is perhaps challenging for many in our community."
Dr. Etches issued a call for Ottawa residents to check in on family, friends and loved ones during the final month of online schooling.
"I want to ask people to think about three or four parents that you know, in your neighbourhood, in your social circles," said Etches. "Text them, message them, call them – ask how they're doing. For those where they're saying they can't keep doing this, it's too much, think about how you may be able to help.
CHILDREN ARE NOT A PRIORITY, DOCTOR SAYS
An Ottawa pediatrician tells CTV News Ottawa it feels like children are not a priority.
"Disappointed, frustrated, exceedingly upset, worried, left out. A lot of kids feel left out right now," said Dr. Jane Liddle.
"We are exceedingly worried about the kids' mental health right now."
Dr. Liddle says while there's only three weeks left in the school year, "two to three weeks can be critical in the life of a child."
"We don’t want things put on hold until September, we need to be addressing children’s needs now and the best thing for that is in school," said Liddle.
The final day of classes for Ottawa Carleton District School Board elementary schools is Friday, June 25, while secondary schools are scheduled to finish exams on June 22.
The final day of classes for elementary schools with the Ottawa Catholic School Board is Thursday, June 24, while secondary schools are scheduled to finish exams on June 23.
Elementary schools with the the Conseil des ecoles catholiques du Centre-Est and the Conseil des ecoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario wrap up the school year on June 24.