Ontario’s regional public health officials are asking the government to prioritize opening schools before lifting other public health restrictions aimed at reducing high levels COVID-19 infection and hospitalizations across the province.
The chair of the Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health wrote to the provincial health and education ministers asking for deployment of extra measures that would help children get back into classrooms safely.
“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,” Dr. Paul Roumeliotis’ letter said.
“Safe reopening of all schools in Ontario is essential.”
The letter, dated 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. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention that showed transmission risk within schools was low, with mask requirements and student cohorting in place.
Schools in several southern Ontario regions with high infection rates, including the Toronto and Windsor areas, have been closed through January, with the province staggering reopenings in rural and northern areas that have fewer cases.
Friday’s letter from the medical officers noted schools have reopened safely already in some regions, and it can be done in others. It recommended measures should be taken to reduce infections among staff, including limiting the number of employees on site and not allowing itinerant teachers to give in-person instruction to multiple groups of students.
The letter also called for enhanced testing and greater capacity for same-day tests across the province.
A statement from Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government “will continue to be guided by leading scientific and pediatric leaders to ensure we keep schools safe.”
“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’s statement said.
Ontario’s top doctor said Friday that schools in some regions may stay online until rapid COVID-19 tests can be deployed to monitor the virus.
Meanwhile on Saturday, a public health physician called a small spike in COVID-19 cases in northwestern Ontario Indigenous communities a “wake-up call” for the area.
Dr. John Guilfoyle with the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority said Saturday that eight total active cases recently detected across five First Nations communities — Poplar Hill, Webequie, Pikangikum, Lac Seul and Nibinamik — appear to have been contained, according to contact tracing and testing so far.
Guilfoyle described the containment as good news, but said the situation is a reminder that taking precautions is more important than ever, especially given that cases were reported in four communities in a single day this week.
“To get cases in four communities in one day is absolutely new, and this is a pattern we don’t want to see repeated,” Guilfoyle said in a Saturday video update.
He reminded people to stick to essential travel and continue following public health guidance by physically distancing from one another, wearing masks and staying within social bubbles. He noted such measures are more important than ever as a new and potentially more infectious virus variant emerges in the province.
The variant known as B.1.1.7 first discovered in the United Kingdom last year has been detected in health units across the province since it was first discovered in the Toronto area just over a month ago.
As of Saturday, the province had confirmed 57 cases of the U.K. variant, with infections reported in new regions including Halton and Waterloo.
Public health officials in the Kingston, Ont., and Barrie, Ont., areas have said they suspect the actual number of U.K. variant cases is higher than the confirmed total.
In Barrie, an outbreak driven by the variant that began in a long-term care home has since infected well over 200 people. The region’s top doctor said this week he’s confident every case in the outbreak is the U.K. strain.
In their letter to the province about schools, the regional medical officers said the variants should be monitored, but the group “(does) not believe they present a reason to delay a return to the classroom.”
Ontario reported a provincewide total of 2,063 additional cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, and 73 more deaths linked to the virus.
Of 1,273 people hospitalized as of Saturday, the province said 353 patients were in intensive care and 216 were on ventilators.
The province reported 9,373 COVID-19 vaccine doses administered Friday, for a total of 336,828.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press