Ontario education minister set to make announcement as more students head back to school

Ontario’s education minister is set to make an announcement Monday as more students head back to school for in-person classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic in the province.

Stephen Lecce is scheduled to hold a news conference at 11 a.m. ET at Queen’s Park in Toronto. You’ll be able to watch it live in this story.

To date, more than 500,000 students in 19 of Ontario’s 34 public health units have been given a green light to return to classrooms. That includes those in the Middlesex-London, Ottawa, Southwestern and Eastern Ontario health units, areas where in-person instruction restarted this morning. 

The next wave of students, from Toronto, Peel, York Region, Windsor-Essex and Hamilton, are currently scheduled to return on Feb. 10. Those students, along with their peers in 11 other health units, have been learning remotely since the end of the holiday season.

In a recent letter to Lecce and Minister of Health Christine Elliott, regional medical officers of health called on the provincial government to prioritize opening schools before lifting other public health restrictions aimed at reducing high levels of COVID-19 infection and hospitalizations from the illness.

“Upon careful review and consideration of local indicators, we believe it is possible, and in fact, imperative, that schools begin to open before the reopening of other sectors, as the stay-at-home orders are lifted provincially,” wrote Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, chair of the Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health.

“Safe reopening of all schools in Ontario is essential.”

Transmission risk low, says U.S. CDC

The letter, dated last Friday, cited guidance from Toronto’s SickKids Hospital that flagged “harms of prolonged school closures” and recommended daily in-person classrooms be “the last to close and the first to open.”

It also noted a recent paper from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed transmission risk within schools was low, with mask requirements and student cohorting in place.

Ontario has introduced some new safety measures in schools this winter — including masking for grades 1 to 3 — though debate continues about whether the measures are adequate

Public health officials also said last week that part of the province’s stockpile of rapid tests for COVID-19 would be deployed for use in schools in the coming weeks.

A province-wide lockdown began in Ontario on Dec. 26, and it was supplemented with a stay-at-home issued earlier this month. 

The measures appear to have, at least in part, curbed transmission of the virus. The seven-day average of new daily cases of COVID-19 in Ontario has been in steady decline since its peak on Jan. 11, and hospitalizations have slowed.

Revised models published last week, however, cautioned that variants of the virus could become dominant by mid-March.

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