Opposition parties at Queen’s Park are demanding an explanation for how and when the province will reopen schools for in-person instruction — as Premier Doug Ford’s government continues to mull the decision.
Ontario schools shifted to online learning on April 19 as the province was grappling with the worst of the third wave of COVID-19 cases. Since then, the government has faced a looming decision about when, and if, schools will reopen before the end of the academic year in June.
In recent days, as the province’s vaccination campaign has ramped up and cases and hospitalizations have fallen, the debate about school reopening has kicked into full gear.
“The parents that talked to me were floored, first of all, that schools were left off the (reopening) plan that the premier announced a couple weeks ago,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told reporters on Tuesday.
Horwath has long argued that if the Ford government had spent more on mitigation measures, schools could have been safely open “much more often during this pandemic.”
“The very least that the government can do is be concise and clear, and provide kids, education workers, and parents with some information as quickly as possible,” she added.
So far, the government has been guarded about whether it will reopen schools, with Health Minister Christine Elliott on Monday calling it a “very big decision” that the government doesn’t want to rush.
“What we’re considering is the health and safety of children and young people in Ontario, their teachers and other school officials, so we need to take the time to get this right,” Elliott said. “The premier has been very clear about that.”
On Monday, Ford said Ontarians can expect a decision “in the next day or two.”
Last week, Ford sought input on the decision from a wide range of stakeholders, including teachers unions, health-care organizations and the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, the government’s arms-length advisers.
The science table responded to the premier on Friday saying schools could begin to safely reopen “on a regional basis.” There has yet to be a clear sign from the province that it plans to follow that advice.
But if schools do reopen on June 2, when Ontario’s stay-at-home order expires, the province can expect a six to 11 per cent bump in cases, science table co-chair Dr. Steini Brown warned on May 20. At the time, Ford called that “very concerning.”
Meanwhile, debate in the legislature ratcheted up on Tuesday, with opposition members slamming the government for its lack of direction this week.
“The real question right now is schools, and we’re still waiting,” Liberal House leader John Fraser said. “Almost two weeks ago, the premier announced the reopening plan (with) literally nothing about schools, nothing.”
“The biggest problem right now is a lack of clarity for parents,” he added.
When pushed about school safety in debate on Tuesday morning, Education Minister Stephen Lecce reaffirmed his position that, according to Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, “schools have been safe in the province of Ontario.”
“Three out of four schools in the province did not have an active case of COVID when we closed with the peak of a third wave,” Lecce added. “We’re going to continue to follow (Dr. Williams’) advice and most especially, continue to invest to keep kids safe.”
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