Open all Ontario schools before other sectors, medical officers of health urge government
TORONTO -- Ontario’s medical officers of health are calling on the Ford government to reopen all schools first before reopening other sectors of the province as transmission of COVID-19 appears to be decreasing.
Chair of The Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis penned a letter on Friday to Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Health Minister Christine Elliott.
The letter stresses that the “safe reopening of all schools in Ontario is essential” even before community restrictions are lifted.
"We think now that the time is right. That we're seeing more and more schools open across Ontario before the lockdown indeed has been removed and this should be continued across Ontario where the numbers are appropriate. Again, not to wait for essential businesses to open but if we see levels going down in the right direction we should make that move across Ontario," Roumeliotis tells CP24.
The council says it echoes the recently updated advice issued by Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children which warned about the harms of prolonged school closures and that in-person learning should be the “last to close and the first to open.”
Roumeliotis adds that research has proven that there is less impact from extending school closures by a few weeks than implementing additional public health measures.
"We do understand that kids require a certain amount of schooling for their development, for their mental health and so the quicker we can get them back to school to that normal type of interaction and social development the better it is," he says.
The council agreed on four key recommendations that the government should consider for the safe reopening of schools: maximize infection prevention and control measures, interventions to reduce risks for staff, utilize testing resources for the biggest gains and reduce community transmission.
Roumeliotis says the continued implementation of infection control measures is “critically important” to limiting COVID-19 transmission.
“Increasing some of the infection prevention and control (IPAC) measures such as the daily confirmation of screening of staff and students, wearing masks, and ensuring physical distancing will help to continue to keep schools safe,” Roumeliotis states in his letter.
Along with rigorous and comprehensive public health measures, he also notes that the capacity to do complete case and contact follow up in school settings is “crucial.”
The council recommends that safety protocols for staff should also be enhanced by reducing close unprotected staff interactions, such as during breaks and in lunchrooms.
“This includes ensuring that there are no in-person staff training, meetings or social gatherings,” Roumeliotis says.
The council also advises that itinerant teachers do not provide in-person instruction to multiple schools as they pose a higher risk for transmission.
To support active screening in schools, the council says all communities should have same day access to COVID-19 testing, especially with highly contagious variants of the novel coronavirus surfacing across the province.
"The rapid testing are what I call a game changer. They'll be much more easier to test children, get results right away so we can react. Either the child can go back to school or we have to take the necessary precautions," he says.
While the council supports rapid testing for symptomatic individuals in the community, asymptomatic testing of staff and students is not recommended as it “identifies few additional cases.”
In light of COVID-19 variants spreading across the province, Roumeliotis says the council does not believe “they present a reason to delay a return to the classroom."
"We had measures in place before the shutdown and before Christmas holidays that indeed, comparitively speaking, were able to contain the infections in the schools across the province. We know that the variant spreads a little bit more easily than others and it is no different in terms of the precautions. So we need to adhere to the precautions and they're being taken."
Education Minister Stephen Lecce says the government welcomes the council's support.
“We welcome the support of Medical Officers of Health across Ontario as we work to get all schools open, for all children, in all regions of our province," Lecce says in an email statement to CP24 on Saturday.
"We will continue to be guided by leading scientific and paediatric leaders to ensure we keep schools safe," he adds.
Students in the province’s COVID-19 hot spots- Toronto, Peel Region, York Region, Windsor-Essex and Hamilton- will be learning from home until at least Feb. 10.
On Monday, schools in the public health units of Ottawa, Eastern Ontario, Middlesex-London and Southwestern are allowed to return to in-person learning.
All schools in northern Ontario were permitted to reopen on Jan. 11 due to lower rates of case growth.
Last week, the province announced that schools in seven more public health units could reopen on Jan. 25, including Grey Bruce, Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge, Hastings and Prince Edward Counties, Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington, Leeds, Grenville and Lanark, Peterborough, as well as the Renfrew County and District Public Health Unit.