Waterloo Region classrooms to stay closed this school year

Students in Waterloo Region won't be heading back to the classroom before the end of this school year.

Premier Doug Ford, Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Health Minister Christine Elliott announced all schools across Ontario will remain closed this month at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.

Classrooms will stay closed until the fall.

Modelling released by Ontario health officials last month showed reopening schools could result in a six to 11 per cent spike in COVID-19 cases.

A tweet from the Waterloo Region District School Board said students will continue with remote learning until their final day of classes this year. Elementary students will wrap up the school year on June 28, and secondary students will finish school on June 25.

JUST IN: Premier @fordnation has announced that all #Ontario schools, including #WRDSB, will remain closed to students. Our students will continue to learn remotely until their last day of school:

Elementary students - Monday, June 28
Secondary students - Friday, June 25

— Waterloo Region DSB (@wrdsb) June 2, 2021

"COVID-19 has taken a significant toll on everyone in Ontario, but our children have been impacted more than most," Premier Doug Ford said at the press conference. "The pandemic has disrupted their lives, has taken away their ability to go to school, to see friends, to connect with each other."

Last week, the premier wrote to public health, medical and education experts asking them on the best path forward regarding reopening schools.

He said while most favoured a regional approach to reopening, they couldn't guarantee a resumption of in-person learning wouldn't lead to thousands of more cases.

"While no one wants kids back in school more than I do, as your premier, these aren’t risks we are willing to take," Ford said, adding it was a "hard choice" to make.

"It would be irresponsible to put two million kids in a classroom for eight hours a day, and we know it's going to spread," he said. "We need to get more students vaccinated, we need the teachers vaccinated, as quickly as possible to make it safe."

While in-person classes won't resume until September, Ford said he is advocating for outdoor graduation ceremonies for students this summer.

The premier also hinted the province could enter Step 1 of its reopening plan earlier than June 14 as originally proposed, but would not commit to a firm date, saying he was waiting for the green light from the chief medical officer of health and the science advisory table.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province will work to get students, teachers and staff fully vaccinated before the fall.

"We will continue to do everything we can to protect the summer, September, and the safety of families," he said.

Despite the vaccine push, Ford said vaccination against COVID-19 won't be a requirement for students and staff to return to in-person learning in September.

"We can't force anyone to go get a vaccination," he said.

WHAT WATERLOO SCHOOL BOARDS SAID

The Waterloo Catholic District School Board's director of education said she was "saddened" by Wednesday's announcement.

"We are understandably saddened to hear our students will not be returning to the classroom. We support the idea of prioritizing health and safety, but had been quite hopeful that our students could return to the classroom this June," Loretta Notten said in an email.

"We know that face to face learning is critical for so many of our students – in terms of not only their learning, but their mental health and socialization. We know many will be disappointed but we are looking forward to the fall when we can welcome everyone back to what we know will be a better school year," she continued.

As for outdoor graduation ceremonies, Notten said the school board still has questions about how such events would work.

"As to the potential for an outdoor graduation, we are concerned as to how this proposal meshes with the guidance under each phase of the provincial re-opening plan," she said. "We know this is an important milestone but don’t clearly understand just yet what the government is proposing and how it will honour the safety protocols we are all being asked to observe."

A spokesperson for the Region of Waterloo said the Ministry of Health has developed guidance for planning graduation ceremonies for schools, and public health has provided that information to local school boards.

"We will be supporting our local school boards as they work with the province in understanding what measures are required for an in-person, outdoor graduation ceremony, including cohorting, active screening, physical distance, and face coverings," an emailed statement said in part.

"We know how difficult the multiple shifts in learning modes have been for students and families and we know that the extended period of remote learning has had an impact on everyone in the community," reads a statement on the Waterloo Region District School Board's website.

The board says it will offer more information on how students can access summer enrichment and upgrade courses as well as mental health and well-being supports, in the coming weeks.

There are no changes to the end of year schedule, and students will be able to return to school to retrieve any personal belongings left behind in April.

Families will be contacted about returning school-owned learning devices, the board says.

WRDSB says it will provide an update on potential in-person outdoor graduations once they receive more information from the Ministry of Health and public health officials.

LOCAL PARENTS AND EDUCATORS REACT

For parents in Waterloo Region, the announcement brought mixed emotions.

"I'm disappointed, we kind of heard already yesterday that this was what the plan was," said Melanie Beecroft, whose son is in grade one. "I'm just happy to have an answer."

"I think it's good. I want stuff to be open in the summer for my son to do," said parent Tori Hainsworth. "I think going back to school for three weeks, and more cases, there's no point of it really."

Meanwhile, teachers' unions say they're pleased the wait for a decision is over.

"I'm just relieved we have a decision," said Rob Gascho with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation of Waterloo Region.

"To move forward now, to the end of the year, knowing exactly what it's going to look like puts everybody's mind at ease," said Patrick Etmanski with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association.

But one union criticized Ford's announcement about outdoor graduation ceremonies this summer, saying putting on such events on short notice isn't fair to school boards.

"School boards will have to scramble now not just to figure out what it means, but is it possible," said Greg Weiler with the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, Waterloo Region.

With files from CTVNewsToronto.ca.