Simcoe Muskoka schools could remain closed until fall: sources

Simcoe Muskoka students could continue remote learning for the remainder of the academic year, sources say.

CTV Toronto has learned the government's planning and priorities committee made the initial decision not to send students back to in-person learning on Monday, despite the province's top doctor hinting otherwise.

The decision still needs to be finalized during a cabinet meeting and could still change. The meeting is slated for Wednesday.

Premier Doug Ford requested feedback last week from a series of experts on the matter of whether reopening schools would be safe for students and staff.

"Our top priority is to ensure any decision we make on school reopening is based on sound scientific advice, consensus and considers potential or future risks faced by students and staff," Ford said.

Ontario's scientific table recently said a return to school would likely result in a six to 11 per cent increase in infections, adding that would be "manageable."

Simcoe Muskoka's medical officer of health, Dr. Charles Gardner, said a return to in-person learning would be "very beneficial" for students' "physical and mental well-being."

During a live conference Tuesday, Gardner said he continues to support a return to school, saying the health benefits outweigh any concerns surrounding infections.

"It would be best to open schools at this time," he said, adding that "ultimately, it's the province's decision."

Gardner noted the premier's concerns surrounding new variants and a potential for an increase in cases that "could undermind our ability to otherwise continue with a roadmap of opening up."

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. On Tuesday, Ontario reported its lowest single-day COVID-19 case count since October, with 699 new infections. Simcoe Muskoka's health unit reported 16 COVID-19 cases Tuesday.

It was anticipated schools would welcome students back before the province entered step one of its three-tiered reopening plan sometime in mid-June.

It remains unclear when the province will let parents and school boards know about a final decision.

With files from CTV News Toronto